BOOKS: Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 2007:

Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching
by Michael Greger, M.D.
Lantern Books (1 Union Square West, Suite 201, New York, NY 10003),
2006. 465 pages, hardcover. $30.00.

Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching, by Humane Society of
the U.S. director of public health & animal agriculture Michael
Greger, M.D., is at once a meticulously researched timely warning
about the potential threat to humanity from the H5N1 influzenza
virus, and a book that will not be read and heeded by nearly enough
people–even after a strain of H5N1 apparently jumped from factory
farms in Hungary into the facilities of the British turkey producer
Bernard Matthews in February 2007, underscoring most of Greger’s
major points.

Bernard Matthews imported turkeys from a Hungarian farm just
20 miles from a known H5N1 outbreak –and then sent 20 tons of
potentially contaminated meat processed in Britain back to Hungary
for sale.
Agribusiness and the pharmaceutical industry have combined to
create conditions which may expose humanity to a pandemic of
unprecedented proportions, Greger suggests, if–or when–H5N1
mutates into a form easily transmitted from person to person.
Greger traces how factory farming has produced literally
billions of genetically almost identical birds and pigs with severely
compromised immune systems, each an incubator for viral mutation.
The recent introduction of U.S. and European intensive confinement
farming methods to southern China and parts of Southeast Asia
multiplied the risk. Live poultry markets, cockfighting, and
intensively raising ducks, geese, and quail are contributing
factors in the spread of H5N1, but the factor of most concern is
simply the proximity of high-risk birds to huge numbers of
increasingly mobile people.
Greger reviews the case histories of dozens of disease
outbreaks resulting from factory farming, each demonstrating how
rapidly H5N1 could spread and how deadly it could become. Having
accurately predicted the jump of “mad cow disease” into humans in
1994, two years before the jump was confirmed, Greger has
credibility as a prophet of doom. Now as then, governments dither
under the influence of lobbyists whose work is in effect to persuade
lawmakers that protecting public health is less urgent than
protecting profits.
As Greger points out, the U.S. more than any other nation
has had the resources and opportunity to set a positive example
through prevention and preparedness, but instead still enforces no
effective regulation of confinement farming, and has done less by
way of preparedness than at least 40 other nations. The current
U.S. antiviral drug reserves could protect barely 2% of the human
population against an H5N1 pandemic. The common practice of feeding
factory-farmed poultry and pigs a diet including their own offal and
excrement meanwhile replicates on a vast scale the experiments which
in laboratory settings have exponentially amplified the virulence of
viral diseases.
“Tragically, it may take a pandemic with a virus like H5N1
before the world realizes the true cost of cheap chicken,” Greger
concludes, after a chapter of apocalyptic recommendations about
storing food and water to survive the pandemic, and an explanation
of how limited supplies of the antiviral drug Tamiflu could be
extended, if those who cannot get doses drink the urine of others
who are dosed adequately.
Taking the discussion into the realm of “Mad Max” movies
dilutes rather than strengthens the impact of Greger’s arguments.
Because most people feel there is little or nothing they can do to
avoid end-of-the-world scenarios, from getting nuked to getting hit
by a comet, these issues tend to attract less focused concern than
such comparatively small threats as the possibility of an aircraft
being hijacked by terrorists.
Ultimately, one must wonder whether Greger went into the
“Mad Max” stuff simply because he ran out of things to say. Little
of substance in Bird Flu is not repeated two or three times. But
redundancy is the least of the tedious writing: interesting ideas
and good stories can bear some repetition and re-examination.
Much more problematic is Greger’s habit of failing to source
claims and quotations, stating over and over that “one so-and-so
said such-and-such” without providing a hint as to the context.
Footnotes sprinkled like chicken droppings after seemingly every
other sentence sometimes provide the missing information, but at
least as often merely show where someone might go to look for it.
As a 150-page mass market paperback, Bird Flu: A Virus of
Our Own Hatching might have reached tens of thousands of people who
could have read it within the span of an average air trip. In the
present cumbersome format, it might mostly reaffirm Greger’s status
as a Cassandra, to whom no one will listen until much too late.

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