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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Hen in manure pit covered in flies

Outbreaks within and between modern, fully-enclosed, “biosecure” confinement facilities around the world have begged the question of how a virus from wild waterfowl gets inside in the first place. As we know, the virus itself may literally fall from the sky in the droppings of migratory waterfowl. Ducks crisscross virtually every continent in the world, potentially dive-bombing the countryside with virus2034 from a theoretical height of up to 20,000 feet.2035 A single duck can drop billions of infectious doses of virus in a single day.2036 The most comprehensive sampling of North American waterfowl found that up to 60% of juvenile ducks heading south from Canada were infected2037 and able to actively excrete virus for as long as 30 days.2038 With decreased and downgraded wetlands in North America2039 and elsewhere,2040 waterfowl may be forced to congregate in greater numbers, which would be expected to push infection rates even higher.2041

Once on the ground outside, the virus may quickly dry up and die unless it is transported to an environment more favorable for survival. The prime conduit for mechanical transfer of infective feces has historically involved contaminated poultry workers or equipment.2042 Although, even without human involvement, “You have a lot of everything,” remarks one USDA poultry microbiologist. “A lot of birds, a lot of manure, a lot of moisture, a lot of dust. Everything that walked into that house—every two- and four- and six-legged creature—is a potential vector for moving it around.”2043

Rodents, insects, and wildlife could all be vectors ferrying the virus into confinement facilities.2044 Experimental evidence shows that rats and mice, both huge problems in the poultry industry,2045 may carry H5N1.2046 An outbreak in Australia established that starlings and sparrows are also potential spreaders of bird flu viruses,2047 and other wildlife species found both in waterfowl habitat and on poultry farms, such as skunks, ground squirrels, and raccoons, have been shown capable of harboring bird flu viruses.2048 According to one poultry veterinarian, “Maintaining confinement buildings in a wildlife-proof condition is difficult…,” especially with factors like ground-frost heaving compromising the integrity of the perimeter during the winter.2049 DNA fingerprinting studies of Campylobacter suggest contact between housed poultry and wild birds2050 who may be drawn to the bounty of free food available inside broiler sheds. In trying to describe why wild migratory birds are attracted to poultry operations, Ellen Silbergeld, an esteemed professor at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, explained, “You rob a bank because that’s where the money is—this is where all the food is, so of course they’re going to try to get inside….”2051

Flies may even carry the contagion. Just as up to 50% of the copious2052 flies captured near poultry houses have been found carrying the poultry fecal bacteria Campylobacter,2053 the deadly H5N2 virus was isolated from garbage flies2054 during the 1980s outbreak in Pennsylvania.2055 Influenza viruses may even seep into the water supply, with surface water from contaminated ponds potentially leaching into nearby groundwater supplies for confined poultry.2056 Understandably, a North Carolina State University poultry health management professor wrote in an industry trade journal that “high biosecurity and proper monitoring are still wishful thinking in many areas of intensive poultry production.”2057

Increasing intensification is making it even more wishful. The World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) points out that the changes in the global poultry industry over the past 20 years make infectious diseases “significantly more difficult to control because of the greater number of susceptible animals reared per given unit of time and to the difficulties in applying adequate biosecurity programmes.”2058 The OIE notes that biosecurity measures may be simply incompatible with modern high-density rearing systems.0259 “When an outbreak of avian influenza occurs in an area with a high [poultry] population density,” OIE officials wrote, “the application of rigorous biosecurity measures might not be possible.”2060 The industry and USDA researchers2061 confess that this is one of the disadvantages of the U.S. system: Not only are 20,000 to 25,000 broiler chickens typically confined in a single shed, but there may be up to 16 sheds at a single facility.2062 There are now egg-laying operations with the capacity to cage more than four million hens in a single complex.2063 When sheds and farms are situated close enough to one another, the virus may be able to spread through the wind.2064

Even assuming that all poultry workers, staff, and visitors paid perfect attention to biosecurity protocols—such as scrubbing footwear in disinfectant every time they stepped into a shed and washing their hands three separate times before entering (as instructed by the USDA’s instructional video Biosecurity: For the Birds2065 )—a stray barn swallow or housefly could theoretically carry contagion in or out of an intensive confinement facility. And studies show that attention to biosecurity protocol is a far cry from perfect.

The U.S. poultry industry claims to have the “best biosecurity system in the world,”2066 but academic and governmental investigations have uncovered widespread disregard for biosecurity precautions among large and small domestic producers.2067 In 2002, University of Maryland researchers sent questionnaires about biosecurity practices to commercial broiler facilities throughout the Delmarva Peninsula, where more than 100 million broiler chickens of various ages are confined at any given time. Fewer than half the facilities returned the survey, and those that did admitted to severe lapses in biosecurity. The researchers conclude that U.S. broiler flocks “are constantly at risk of infection triggered by poor biosecurity practices.”2068

In a moment of candor from the industry, Charles Beard, acting as U.S. Poultry and Egg Association vice president, admitted that relying on biosecurity measures to protect the U.S. poultry industry “could appear na´ve.”2069 “After all,” he writes, “biosecurity is mostly a ‘people’ thing.” Even putting human fallibility aside, Beard is concerned that unless all poultry workers “join in with conviction and enthusiasm, it is not likely to be successful” regardless of what “those in charge” say.2070 The University of Maryland surveys show biosecurity “enthusiasm” to be lacking, and the “convictions” of poultry corporations like Tyson have leaned more toward 20 felony violations for illegal dumping of untreated wastewater into the nation’s rivers2071 than toward a desire to practice biosecurity. In fact, Tyson Foods, the largest chicken-producing corporation in the world,2072 found itself before the Supreme Court in 2005 for refusing to pay workers for time spent donning protective clothing at a poultry plant. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously against Tyson.2073

Breaches in biosecurity occur in modernized facilities around the world.2074 The European Food Safety Authority recognizes that when this happens in a densely populated poultry area, these breaches can result in “massive spread.”2075 The bottom line, according to animal disease control experts, is that biosecurity measures are costly for the industry2076 and “not easy to sustain in the long term.”2077 Emeritus veterinary poultry professor Simon M. Shane, author of the Handbook on Poultry Diseases, even notes a “decline in the standards of biosecurity in an attempt to reduce costs in competitive markets.” The decline is a contributing factor, Shane concludes, in the frequency and severity of disease outbreaks.2078

In Poultry Digest, longtime industry insider and avian health expert Ken Rudd wrote a candid article titled, “Poultry Reality Check Needed,” in which he laid out in stark terms the industry’s skewed priorities:
An examination of virtually all the changes made in the past decade shows that they’ve come in the guise of convenience and efficiency, but they are, in fact, cost-cutting measures. Few, if any, decisions have been made solely for the sake of avian health or the long-term protection of the industry. The balance between the two has been lost; the scale is now weighted almost entirely on the cost-cutting side. And, therefore, on the side of microorganisms—much longer on this earth than humans!2079
Specifically, Rudd criticizes the profitable yet risky practice of reducing the duration of downtime between flocks and the trend of not cleaning poultry houses between flocks. He pleads with his industry to “consider the cost of catastrophe.”2080

One need look no further than other widespread viral disease outbreaks, like foot and mouth disease in Europe, to understand the vulnerability of modern animal agriculture.2081 In the United States, within three years of the emergence of the highly virulent “Delaware variant” of the immunodeficiency IBD virus, virtually the entire broiler industry east of the Mississippi was affected.2082 How can the U.S. poultry industry continue to insist that their facilities are biosecure? If this is the “best biosecurity system in the world,” then the global industry may need to fundamentally rethink how it raises birds for meat and eggs. The United States, the country that pioneered industrialized poultry production, has reported more bird flu than any other country in the world.2083