Table of Contents:



I. Storm Gathering

1. 1918

2. Master of Metamorphosis

3. H5N1

4. Playing Chicken

5. Worse Than 1918?

6. When, Not If

II. When Animal Viruses Attack

1. The Third Age

2. Man Made

3. Livestock Revolution

4. Tracing the Flight Path

5. One Flu Over the Chicken's Nest

6. Coming Home to Roost

7. Guarding the Henhouse

III. Pandemic Preparedness

1. Cooping Up Bird Flu

2. Race Against Time

3. Tamiflu

IV. Surviving the Pandemic

1. Don't Wing It

2. Our Health in Our Hands

3. Be Prepared

V. Preventing Future Pandemics

1. Tinderbox

2. Reining in the Pale Horse


References 1-3,199

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Cockfighter tending to wounds

The explosion of H5N1 in early 2004, which led to the deaths of more than 100 million chickens across eight countries in Southeast Asia, was traced to the trade in live birds.1406 The timing and pattern were inconsistent with known migratory bird routes.1407 The initial spread of this disease seems to have been via the railways1408 and highways, not the flyways.1409

The riskiest segment of trade may be in fighting cocks, transported across borders to be unwilling participants in the high-stakes gambling blood “sport.”1410 In cockfighting pits, roosters are set upon one another, often pumped full of steroids and stimulants, with sharpened razors strapped to their legs. The sprays of bloody droplets help ensure that any virus present travels back home after the fights in newly infected birds—or people. A number of cockfighting enthusiasts, and children of cockfighters,1411 have died from H5N1.1412

The Thai Department of Disease Control described a case of a young man who had “very close contact to…fighting cocks by carrying and helping to clear up the mucus secretion from the throat of the cock during the fighting game by using his mouth.” As one leading epidemiologist at the CDC commented dryly, “That was a risk factor for avian flu we hadn’t really considered before.”1413

The movement of gaming cocks was directly implicated in the rapid spread of H5N1. Malaysian government officials blamed cockfighters as the main “culprits” for bringing the disease into their country by taking birds to cockfighting competitions in Thailand and bringing them back infected.1414 Thailand, with an estimated 15 million fighting cocks,1415 was eventually forced to pass a nationwide interim ban on cockfighting.1416 The director of Animal Movement Control and Quarantine within the Thai Department of Livestock Development explained what led to the ban: “When one province that banned cockfights didn’t have a second wave outbreak of bird flu and an adjacent province did, it reinforced the belief that the cocks spread disease.”1417 A study of Thailand published in 2006 concluded, “We found significant associations at the national level between HPAI [H5N1] and the overall number of cocks used in cock fights.”1418

According to the FAO, cockfighting may have also played a role in making the disease so difficult to control.1419 During mass culls in Thailand, bird owners receive around 50 baht, about $1.25, in compensation for each chicken killed—less than the bird’s market value for meat.1420 Some prized fighting cocks fetch $1,000, providing a disincentive for owners to report sick birds.1421

Fighting cocks were reportedly hidden from authorities and illegally smuggled across provincial lines and country borders. This not only complicated the attempt at eradicating of H5N1, but potentially facilitated its spread,1422 causing some officials to throw up their hands. “Controlling the epidemic in the capital is now beyond the ministry’s competence,” Thailand’s Deputy Agriculture Minister told the Bangkok Post, “due to strong opposition from owners of fighting cocks, who keep hiding their birds away from livestock officials.”1423 The Los Angeles Times likened asking Thais to give up cockfighting to “asking Americans to abandon baseball.”1424

A different poultry virus, the cause of exotic Newcastle disease, did hit a home run in California, thanks to U.S. cockfighters. Cockfighting is illegal in 48 states in the United States, carrying felony charges in most of them. Cockfighting rings have found relative refuge, however, in some states like California that retain only misdemeanor penalties.1425 In 2002, an outbreak of Newcastle disease in California caused the destruction of nearly four million chickens at a cost to taxpayers of upwards of $200 million1426 and led to a multinational boycott of U.S. poultry products.1427

Fighting roosters smuggled in from Mexico were blamed for its emergence,1428 and, according to the State Veterinarian and the director of Animal Health and Food Services in California, the high mobility of the gamecocks—meetings, training, breeding, and fighting activities—played a major role in the spread of the disease.1429 Although agriculture inspectors could not pinpoint the exact route by which the disease then jumped to Las Vegas and into Arizona, law enforcement had an idea. “We’ll raid a fight in Merced County and find people from Nevada, New Mexico, Mexico, Arizona, and Southern California,” said a detective with the Merced County Sheriff’s office. “They bring birds to fight and take the survivors home.”1430

Cockfighting also played a role in a prior exotic Newcastle disease outbreak in California, which led to the deaths of 12 million chickens.1431 Although Newcastle can be fatal to nearly all species of birds, it does not represent a significant health risk to humans.1432 “Fighting cocks were responsible for the spread of Newcastle disease in USA,” warns the company veterinarian of the world’s leading poultry breeding corporation,1433 “but equally the virus could have been Avian Influenza.”1434 An article in The Gamecock openly encourages U.S. breeders of fighting cocks to hide birds from health inspection authorities should bird flu arrive in the States.1435

“Don’t be surprised,” said U.S. Representative and senior member of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Elton Gallegly, “if the deadly avian flu enters the United States in the blood of a rooster smuggled into the country for the barbaric sport of cockfighting.”1436 During the course of containment following the 2002 outbreak, agriculture officials were staggered by the number of illegal cockfighting operations they stumbled upon—up to 50,000 gamecock operations in southern California alone, according to some estimates.1437 Despite being illegal for more than a century1438 and despite hundreds of arrests,1439 state law enforcement officials say that cockfighting continues to grow in popularity.1440 One University of California, Davis, poultry specialist told the Los Angeles Times recently, “In Los Angeles, I’m confident you could find far more than 10 fights this weekend.”1441

According to the cockfighters’ trade association, the American Animal Husbandry Coalition, there are thousands of operations that raise fighting cocks across the country.1442 In states where raising birds for blood sports is illegal, breeders claim the cocks are being raised as pets1443 or for show.1444 A 2005 FBI raid breaking up a cockfighting ring in Tennessee discovered participants from half a dozen states.1445 In May 2006, California customs officials jailed two individuals allegedly smuggling fighting roosters over the border.1446 With American roosters participating in competitions in Asia, like the 2006 World Slasher Cup,1447 it’s clear that birds are being shipped illegally around the world.1448 All it may take is one contraband avian Typhoid Mary smuggled from Asia into some clandestine U.S. cockfight to potentially spread bird flu throughout the United States. Strengthening penalties and improving enforcement on interstate transport of fighting cocks in America, as well as putting the final two nails in the cockfighting coffin by banning the practice in Louisiana and New Mexico—the last two states that still legally allow cockfighting—may help protect the health of America’s flocks and America’s people.1449

The National Chicken Council, the trade association for the U.S. commercial poultry industry, agrees. The NCC damns cockfighting as not only “inhumane,” but as posing a “serious and constant threat of disease transmission to the commercial industry.”1450 A spokesperson for the United Gamefowl Breeders Association cries foul at the notion that cockfighting is inhumane, arguing that birds don’t feel pain.1451

When the president of the National Chicken Council wrote to the chair of the House Agriculture Committee saying, “We are concerned that the nationwide traffic in game birds creates a continuing hazard for the dissemination of animal diseases,” the president of the United Gamefowl Breeders Association responded, “You blatantly attack our industry…[but] it is the commercial poultry industry that has threatened the livelihood of other birds by transporting poultry that can release airborne pathogens (e.g. feathers being released) through the open-side transportation methods used on U.S. highways.”1452 He’s got a point.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations blames the transport of live birds raised for human consumption as a primary culprit in the rapid spread of avian influenza throughout Asia.1453 One senior Thai public health officer told a New Yorker reporter, “Chickens used to live in our backyards. They didn’t travel much. Now, throughout the world, farms have become factories. Millions of chickens are shipped huge distances every day. We can’t stop every chicken or duck or pig. And they offer millions of opportunities for pathogens to find a niche.”1454

Trucking live poultry has also been implicated in the spread of the disease in Europe.1455 An FAO consultancy report on the genesis and spread of H5N1 concluded that a “longer term prevention measure would be to reduce local and international supply-demand discrepancies such as to reduce the local and long-distance trade.”1456 In the United States, live birds are even shipped in boxes via the U.S. Postal Service.1457

In August 2005, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture Food and Drug Safety administrator told a gathering of federal and state officials that current U.S. Postal Service regulations “are inadequate and present great potential for contamination of the poultry industry.”1458 He estimates that each year, thousands of fighting cocks and other birds lacking health certificates enter North Carolina, potentially placing the state’s massive1459 poultry industry at risk.1460

“Chickens find transport a fearful, stressful, injurious and even fatal procedure,” one group of expert researchers concluded.1461 This high level of stress has been shown to make birds—whether raised for fighting, food, or any other use—more susceptible to spreading disease.1462