s/r home  | issues  | authors  | 50 contents
Why Should Factory Farming of Swine and Poultry Create a Pandemic Influenza Threat?
by Stan Cox
We know that indiscriminate feeding of antibiotics to livestock has led to higher rates of human infection by antibiotic-resistant bacteria. But how might factory-farming practices increase the threat from the influenza virus?
Michael Greger, M.D., director of public health and animal agriculture for The Humane Society of the United States, listed on the Society's website some of the reasons that "Factory farms can be considered viral breeding grounds." Quoting Dr. Greger, they are: 
- The sheer number of confined animals: With so many animals - stressed, deprived and suffering from poor welfare - overcrowded in today's factory farms, a pathogen can run rampant and mutate among so many confined "hosts." As Johns Hopkins School of Public Health Professor Ellen Silbergeld put it: "Instead of a virus only having one spin of the roulette wheel, it has thousands and thousands of spins, for no extra cost. It drives the evolution of new diseases."
- The unnatural stocking density: Swine flu is transmitted like human flu, via infected nasal secretions and respiratory droplets. So, when pigs are intensively confined on factory farms, the large viral loads considered necessary for the emergence of rare flu mutants can rapidly transfer from animal to animal.
- The stress crippling their immune systems: Breeding sows confined in gestation crates can't even turn around and their health can suffer immensely. According to veterinary scientists, crowding more pigs per pen "allows more opportunities for direct nose-to-nose contact or for aerosol spread of the [swine flu] virus between pen mates. Furthermore, a large number of pigs per pen creates physiological stress, which in turn can alter the immune system and predispose pigs to infection."
- The lack of adequate fresh air: The dankness helps keep the virus alive.
- The decaying fecal waste: The millions of gallons of excrement produced by a typical operation decompose and release ammonia, burning the pigs' respiratory tracts, which may predispose them to respiratory infection in the first place.
- The lack of adequate sunlight: In factory farms, there may be no sunlight. The UV rays in sunlight are quite effective in destroying the influenza virus. Thirty minutes in direct sunlight completely inactivates the flu virus, but it can last for days in the shade, and weeks in moist manure.
- Pharmacological crutches: Just as the US pork industry jeopardizes the public through the mass feeding of human antibiotics to pigs to offset the effects of intensive confinement, the industry vaccinates its herds for swine flu. This minimizes the virus' impact on production, but may not significantly reduce viral shedding. Instead, it immunologically pressures the virus to mutate by acquiring novel human virus surface proteins, as has happened in Eurasia and North America, which may increase its pandemic potential.
- Preponderance of disease-carrying rodents, flies, and other vectors: A 2006 study found evidence that flies may be able to pick up flu viruses from factory farms and carry them for miles. [Farm workers can become infected directly and spread the virus as well.] Put all of these factors together and what you get is a "perfect storm" environment for the emergence and spread of new "super strains" of influenza, which long-distance live animal transport can then rapidly spread across the country.
The World Health Organization explains why influenza A viruses (including the one causing swine flu) evolve and spread so rapidly : Influenza viruses are grouped into three types, designated A, B, and C. Of greatest concern are the influenza A viruses. They have characteristics that make influenza A one of the most worrisome of all the well-established infectious diseases. These viruses mutate much more rapidly that type B viruses, and this gives them great flexibility. In addition to humans, they infect pigs, horses, sea mammals and birds. They have a large number of subtypes, all of which are maintained in aquatic birds, providing a perpetual source of viruses and a huge pool of genetic diversity.
When pigs are intensively confined, the large viral loads necessary for the emergence of rare flu mutants can rapidly transfer from animal to animal.
As a result of their unique features, influenza A viruses regularly cause seasonal epidemics in humans that take a heavy toll in morbidity and excess mortality, especially when pneumonia is a complication. At recurring yet unpredictable intervals, influenza A viruses cause pandemics. Scientists describe these viruses as sloppy, capricious, and promiscuous. Their labile and unpredictable nature is notorious. As they lack an RNA proof-reading mechanism, the small errors that occur when the virus copies itself are left undetected and uncorrected.
As a result, influenza A viruses undergo constant stepwise changes in their genetic make-up. This strategy, known as antigenic drift, works well as a short-term survival tactic for the virus: the speed with which slight variations develop keeps populations susceptible to infection.
Though small, the changes are sufficient to evade the defenses of the immune system. Populations protected, whether because of previous infection or vaccination, against one virus strain will not be protected when the next slightly different virus arrives.
Add yet another feature: the genetic content of these viruses is neatly segmented into eight genes. This facilitates the most greatly feared event: the swapping of gene segments during co-infection with human and avian influenza viruses, creating a new virus subtype that will be entirely or largely unfamiliar to the human immune system.
If this new "hybrid" virus contains the right mix of genes, causing severe disease and allowing easy and sustainable human-to-human transmission, it will ignite a pandemic. This strategy, known as antigenic shift, works well as a long-term survival tactic: immunologically, a new virus subtype starts from scratch and is guaranteed a very large population of susceptible hosts.
Stan Cox is lead scientist for the Land Institute in Salina, KS, and author of Sick Planet: Corporate Food and Medicine. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[26 oct 09]