Avian Flu: Stay Tuned

Avian Flu: Stay Tuned

Could the H5N1 virus be in its incipient stage in the United States? Well, that’s the question scientists are focusing on. At this point, scientists have classified 16 HA subtypes and nine known NA subtypes of influenza A. This means there is a plethora of HA/NA combination…each one being a different subtype of the influenza A.

It’s also important to note that there are even differing versions of the H5N1 combination virus – based on pathogenic concentration. That is to say, there is a highly pathogenic virus, and a relatively harmless strain. The U.S. Agriculture Department believes the virus found in two swans to be the latter of the two.

But even with the relative insouciant tone to this announcement , there is an underlying ineluctable foreboding of tragedy. The World Health Organization has reported human-to-human spread of the disease in Indonesia, and that there “is little pre-existing natural immunity to H5N1 infection in the human population. If these H5N1 viruses gain the ability for efficient and sustained transmission among humans, an influenza pandemic could result, with potentially high rates of illness and death.”

From what I’ve read at the CDC Web site, the H5N1 is becoming “more capable” of causing diseases in various animals, not just birds. And, the more contact it has with other creatures and humans, the more inauspicious this ordeal becomes. Just two years ago, a New York Times article reported that Chinese officials found a “lethal strain of avian influenza among pigs at several farms, a discovery that could move the virus a step closer to becoming a potentially deadly problem for people.”

But so far, transmissions are reported to have come mainly via contact with feces from around small poultry farms, usually spread from migratory birds. That said, new studies are less worried about wild birds and increasingly focused on the global poultry industry. It is there, some studies suggest, that the bird flu tends to originate.

And just about the time I’d change the channel on my own blog report…my eyebrow of interest awakens. Global poultry industry?

The twist I’ll add to really give this post some piquancy is as follows: Are corporations and factory farms influencing governments and NGOs, pending the spread avian flu to a large portion of the human race?

Curious. It's worth considering.

The problem, it seems, is that once the virus hits, governments tend to react and overreact quickly…and as you just might expect, they tend to err on the side of corporate farmers, not the poor family farms. For example, a report from GRAIN notes that after the H5N1 virus was found in Egypt, the government over-zealously initiated a sort of scorched earth (or perhaps “scorched avian” – delicious) policy. The report notes:

The Egyptian government swung into action with a military-style cleansing operation. It ordered the culling of all backyard and rooftop poultry and banned live bird markets, where 80% of the nation's poultry is sold. Farmers were promised compensation and vendors were promised refrigerators, so they could switch to selling frozen chicken, but neither materialised.3 Meanwhile, the government banned the transport of live poultry and ordered that all slaughtering must take place in official slaughterhouses, leaving farmers not located near the few official slaughterhouses with no way to slaughter their chickens.

But before you relegate this as some sort of tree hugging, pro-poor commentary, the GRAIN report goes on to say, “the website of the Egyptian government clearly lists initial outbreaks at three factory farms where nearly 70,000 birds were culled, followed by further outbreaks on large factory farms in the regions of Ashmoun, Al-Marg, Giza Badrashaan and Damietta.”

So, to combat the problem, the Egyptians wiped out everything except the known ground zero?

A similar thing happened in India when media pressures forced them to act.

But getting back to the first part of this blog (that rather trivial issue of avian flu infecting millions of humans) the paragon for combating this potential pandemic seems to shifting away from a “let’s save humanity” mindset toward a “yeah we’ll help save the humanity, but we also need to maintain proprietary rights to any vaccine we discover” way of thinking. The GRAIN report continues:   

The WHO doesn't name which collaborating labs are resisting the publication of bird flu sequence data, but it's clear to all observers that the US is a major obstacle. The US Centre for Disease Control (CDC), one of four WHO "Collaborating Centres" on influenza and the nerve centre of the US government's global influenza surveillance programme, refuses to make most of its sequence data public. US health industry consultant David Webster speculates that the CDC is concerned that sharing data would jeopardise its vaccine R&D partnerships with private companies.

Ah yes, the old "profits before people" dilemma. What's a company to do? Being of sound Libra mind and body, I’ve created a checklist of this “have a heart” issue. Human lives are important. Check. Profits are important. Check. It’s a great equipoise humans have been battling to attain throughout history: people and profits.

And while I tend to agree with the “humanity” side, we should – no, we must, at this point, continue to attend to these corporate overseers, because while our governments and NGOs will stay tuned to the advancement of the avian flu, it is the private research and development corporations that will be the ones to broadcast any real solution.

Let’s just hope it’s some sort of public broadcasting.