U.N. Food & Agricultural Organization includes animal welfare considerations in plan to “stamp out” deadly avian flu

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 2004:

GENEVA–The United Nations Food and
Agricultural Organization, not known for
pro-animal stances, on March 18 recommended as
part of the FAO “Control Strategies for Highly
Pathogenic Avian Influenza (H5N1) in Asia” that
involved nations should “Provide humane
euthanasia methods for all animals to be
The recommendation was included as the
sixth of nine points emphasized under the subhead
“Stamping-out policy for infected poultry
(including Valuation, Disposal, Cleaning and
Disinfection, Biosecurity and Animal Welfare).”
The inclusion of an expressed concern for
animal welfare, while not unprecedented, hints
at an FAO response to the view expressed earlier
by World Health Organiz-ation spokesperson Peter
Cordingly that, “It might be time, although
this is none of WHO’s business, that humans have
to think about how they treat animals and how
they farm them, how they market them–basically
the whole relationship between the animal kingdom
and the human kingdom.”
WHO and the FAO are parallel entities
established under U.N. auspices, and often work
together in combating epidemics.

Forwarding the FAO recommendation to
interested animal advocates worldwide, ANIMAL
PEOPLE editor Kim Bartlett noted the misuse of
the term “euthanasia” to describe prophylactic
animal culling, but welcomed the recognition
implicit in the FAO document that the live
burials and live burnings of millions of chickens
in Southeast Asia during the winter 2003-2004
H5N1 avian flu panic were not acceptable
Later in the FAO document, as point #5
in outlining “Regional and International
Coordination,” the FAO advised that “Member
countries and donors will refer to the World
Animal Health Organization standards as
references in the definition of new policies on
animal health and zoonoses,” including in
connection with “Humane killing of animals and
carcass disposal methods.”
The World Animal Health Organiz-ation is
a sub-agency of the FAO. It does not yet appear
to have explicit standards applicable to
situations such as the semi-simultaneous
multinational H5N1 outbreak. The current edition
of the American Veterinary Association Report on
Euthanasia includes a broad exemption from the
otherwise applicable standards for “mass
euthanasia” in event of emergencies.
The FAO under the subheading “Wildlife
Management” also warned that, “Massive killing
of wild birds thought to be pests in the region
led to massive famine and failed crops,” in past
situations, “since the wild birds in fact were
controlling crop pests more than being crop
pests. Therefore wildlife not only warrant
protection due to aesthetic and cultural values,
but also because of the ecosystem ‘services’
provided at very low costs by animals and plants
in the environmentÅ Wild birds should not be
depopulated in an attempt to control avian
influenza but separation, as much as possible,
should be attempted.”
The FAO recommendations were published
one day after the Hong Kong government yielded to
pressure from the World Wildlife Fund and
reopened the Mai Po nature reserve after a
three-month closure. Income from operating the
reserve was to help finance a WWF-sponsored $8
million marine life education center in Sai Kung.
Built on stilts above a coral reef, the
center was to have opened on April 1, but
completion was delayed, WWF-Hong Kong chair
Markus Shaw complained to Simon Parry of the
South China Morning Post, due to cash flow
problems resulting from the Mai Po closure.
An embargo on importing live poultry into
Hong Kong from Guangdong remained in effect
despite intensive protest from wholesale
marketers. The embargo is expected to be lifted
when H5N1 is deemed no longer a threat.

Cockfighters & outbreaks

Through March, eight afflicted Asian
nations had either killed or lost to H5N1 as many
as 100 million chickens and other poultry since
December 2003. Spreading to humans in Vietnam
and Thailand, H5N1 killed at least 24 people,
primarily Vietnamese children who lived in
proximity to chickens and members of Thai
families who were involved in cockfighting. At
least 38 million chickens were culled in Vietnam
and 35 million in Thailand.
Thai efforts to eradicate H5N1 continued
to meet resistance from cockfighters. Thai
agriculture minister Somsak Thepsuthin, himself
a cockfighter, on March 17 vetoed a proposal by
deputy agriculture minister Newin Chidcob to
require that gamecocks be microchipped so as to
be better able to trace the movements of infected
cocks. Newin Chidcob and staff had already begun
microchipping gamecocks three days earlier,
wrote Piyaporn Wongruang of the Bangkok Post.
Somsak Thepsuthin reportedly opposed the
microchipping partly because of the cost, which
he said was exhorbitant compared to the short
life of the typical gamecock, and because the
chips “tickle them and that could slow them down
when charging at the opponent during a fight.”
Somsak Thepsuthin suggested trying to
identify gamecocks with photographs of the skin
patterns on their legs.
Vietnam reportedly planned to declare
itself free of H5N1 on March 30 despite the March
15 death of a 12-year-old boy from the disease in
Tay Ninh province. Experts from other nations
cautioned that similar announcements by other
nations had repeatedly been belied by new
South Korea went six weeks between cases,
after killing nearly three million chickens and
ducks to contain H5N1, starting on December 15,
but killed another 400,000 chickens and ducks on
20 farms in Yangu, north of Seoul, after a new
outbreak was detected in late March.
Japan, which had avoided avian flu for
nearly 80 years, had apparently extinguished
H5N1 three times, only to have it reappear among
gamecocks, wild crows, and more than 130,000
chickens at the Asada Nosan poultry farm in
Tamba, Kyoto prefecture. The farm was started
by Hajimu Asada, 67, in 1973. Asada, deputy
chair of the Japan Poultry Association,
concealed the outbreak until after 18,000
chickens died and the deaths were exposed by the
author of an anonymous letter to the authorities.
Threatened with prosecution, Asada and his wife
Chisako, 64, on March 7 hanged themselves.

Vaccination controversy

Indonesia and China have opted for
high-volume vaccination instead of prophylactic
killing, limiting poultry culling to the
immediate vicinity of birds known to have H5N1.
Otherwise, their strategy is to try to isolate
both outbreak sites and especially vulnerable
locations through “ring vaccination.”
For example, to protect 184 wild bird
species including seven that are considered
internationally endangered, Chinese officials
vaccinated all poultry within 10 kilometres of
Caohai Lake in Guizhou province.
This approach is controversial, not
least because some experts believe H5N1 emerged
in the first place because of flawed vaccination
efforts in southern China.
The argument against vaccination is that
even the best flu vaccines do not prevent all
strains of the disease. They can merely prevent
illness among infected animals, who become
incubators for vaccination-resistant mutant
strains. The weaker the vaccine, the more
readily this occurs.
Only once, in Mexico in 1995, has
vaccination succeeded as the first line of
defense against avian flu. Even there, warned
New Scientist writer Debora MacKenzie on March
24, “The virus is still circulating silently,”
just as “The H5N1 virus is almost certainly still
circulating among the vaccinated birds” in Asia.
The fear is that in this abnormal setting, it
may evolve into a form that is not only fatal to
people, like the current form, but can also
spread from person to person. Research in
Mexico,” MacKenzie said, “has shown for the
first time that under these conditions bird flu
evolves at an unprecedented rate, with
unpredictable consequences.”
The data, compiled by USDA scientist
David Suarez, is to appear soon in the Journal
of Virology, wrote MacKenzie.
U.S. and Canadian authorities are
meanwhile struggling to contain outbreaks of
other avian flus in Maryland, Delaware, and
British Columbia, before they spread or mutate.
The outbreak in Maryland and Delaware, among
farms that supply live markets in New York and
New Jersey, appeared to have been suppressed in
mid-March, but re-emerged after four weeks,
bringing the slaughter of 328,000 chickens at two
locations. Almost as many chickens were killed
at five locations in the Fraser Valley region of
B.C., where at least one poultry worker was
infected with the H7 strain of avian flu.
Of background concern to public health
officials worldwide, and likely to get increased
research attention following the H5N1 pandemic,
is a warning by Tulane University epidemiologist
Eric Johnson that viruses which cause cancer in
chickens and turkeys might also be responsible
for elevated rates of cancer in the lungs,
kidneys, pancreas, blood, and lymphatic
systems of poultry workers.
Johnson published findings from a study
of Baltimore poultry workers in 1997, and
followed up with a study of Missouri poultry
workers published in October 2003. The Baltimore
poultry workers contracted the suspect cancers at
rates four times as high as the general public.
The Missouri poultry workers contracted the
cancers more often than the general public, but
below the threshold for statistical significance.
The cancer-causing viruses and H5N1 are
not related. The central part of Johnson’s
argument, however, is that avian viruses in
general may be afflicting humans far more often
and more subtly than is commonly supposed, and
may produce longterm effects even when no
short-term effects are evident.

How it happened

H5N1 hit Southeast Asia after regional
poultry production increased 3% in 2003, half
again faster than the world increase of 2%.
Global poultry slaughter in 2003 came to 50
billion, according to Watt Publishing’s
Executive Guide to World Poultry Trends, with
about 53 million hens in egg production at any
given time.
Avian disease epidemics typically involve
three separate and distinct bird populations.
Outbreaks usually begin among wild birds, and
would burn themselves out if the afflicted flocks
had no contact with domestic birds.
Occasionally, however, wild birds infect
populations of highly mobile domestic birds such
as gamecocks, birds raised for shooting, or
racing pigeons, all of whom spend time outdoors
yet are raised in unnaturally close
concentration. The human handlers of these birds
then infect wholly confined domestic poultry.
Wild bird trafficking may have brought
H5N1 into proximity to gamecocks at marketplaces.
The magnitude of the illegal Thai traffic in wild
birds was illustrated by the March 14 arrest in
Kabin Buri of Ousamarn Pongsri, 49, and
Suthipong Sriwilai, 34, who were reportedly
caught with more than 10,000 wild-caught birds in
their truck. The two men intended to sell the
birds for release by the devout at Buddhist
Pigeon racing may have been a factor in
spreading H5N1 beyond the mainland. A hint at
the scale of illegal international pigeon racing
in Southeast Asia came on May 7 when cages
holding more than 5,000 pigeons slid off the deck
of a cargo vessel in the Bashi Channel between
Taiwan and the Philippines. Agence France-Presse
reported that the pigeons were among about 30,000
entrants in a seven-stage race with about $3
million U.S. wagered on the outcome.

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