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September 12, 2011

Contagious Concerns about Health Risks of Factory Farming

Last month, director Rupert Wyatt released "The Rise of the Planet of the Apes" to positive reviews, especially within the animal protection community, given the director's use of computer-generated imagery and human actors that substituted for the use of live apes in the film. The movie is the latest in a series of science fiction films dating back to the 1960s to focus on the intelligence and emotions of great apes, raising fundamental questions about how we'd react if we were no longer the dominant species on the planet and what sort of merciful treatment we'd expect.

Breeding pigs confined in gestation crates at a factory farm
The HSUS

This month, it's "Contagion" that's helping to deliver important and relevant themes to millions of movie-goers across the nation. In this case, the dominant organisms are not people or chimps, but pathogens, and how their rise would, in a very real way, change the fortunes of the human species.

The HSUS has on its staff one of the nation's foremost experts on the issue of zoonotic diseases. Our own Dr. Michael Greger, M.D., director of public health and animal agriculture at The HSUS, is author of Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching, a big-picture treatment of how most infectious diseases that afflict people started in animals and then jumped the species barrier. I asked him why he decided to concentrate so much of his study and work in this domain, and why this area of study and advocacy is so vital for the public health of our global community:

My interest in the field started while I was working on an AIDS ward in a public health hospital up in Boston. This was before many of the current antiretroviral therapies existed and we in the medical profession were largely impotent in fighting this ravaging disease. But AIDS didn't even exist when I was growing up. This drove me to start researching the origins of infectious disease. Where did AIDS come from in the first place, and is there anything we can do to prevent the emergence of such plagues in the future?

To my surprise, I found out that HIV is thought to have arisen from the bushmeat trade in Africa. Someone butchered a chimp a few decades ago and now 25 million people are dead. SARS was linked to live animal markets in Asia, the spread of monkeypox to the exotic pet trade, bird flu to the cockfighting industry, and swine flu to long-distance live animal transport. How we were treating animals was having significant public health implications. Nowhere was this more apparent than in factory farming, which has been blamed for the emergence and spread of a whole host of threats including antibiotic-resistant bacteria, egg-borne Salmonella, mad cow disease, and more dangerous strains of the flu.

In 2005 I was honored to have been brought on board at The Humane Society of the United States to continue my examination of the human health consequences of our collective treatment of wildlife, domestic, and farm animals. Though most of my publications continue to be in the scientific literature, Bird Flu was my attempt to bring these issues to light to the general public. All proceeds from the sale of the book go to The HSUS and the full text is available free at BirdFluBook.org.

Last week I presented at the International Conference on Virology, and all eyes were on the new strain of swine flu the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported infecting a few children. Ironic timing, given the premiere of Contagion's (spoiler alert!) pork-borne pandemic in theaters everywhere. The newly identified virus is a hybrid mutant combining a gene from the 2009 pandemic virus with genes from the swine flu virus that emerged and spread throughout factory farms in the United States a dozen years ago. The 2009 swine-origin pandemic was mild, hospitalizing a quarter-million Americans, and killing about a thousand children. Unless we start giving the farm animals under our care some more breathing room, though, the fear remains that one day our luck may run out.

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