we’re all sick

Reading the news of late has been a bit of a downer on the health side of things. Being in China, the main worry has been SARS, since it’s been making a possible comeback. What has really struck me of late has been the correlation between what we eat, and what we risk.

The US has been dealing with a slight outbreak of “mad cow,” and Asia is dealing with a bird flu threat along with a revisit from our old friend SARS.

So, if one wanted to be extremist about the news we could say take cow, civet, and chicken off the menu please. This was how Hong Kong dealt with the bird flu outbreak in 1997: killing all the chickens in Hong Kong. Guangdong in southern China has been using this approach to civets, which have been linked in transmitting SARS. In the past England has done this to deal with mad cows.

Vietnam, China, and the US are currently the countries facing these challenges. It will be interesting, if not terrifying, to see how Vietnam handles the bird flu. It may turn into another epidemiologist’s nightmare if they cannot develop severe enough controls. While many animals have been destroyed, Vietnam doesn’t have the control and financial resources that Hong Kong had in 1997.

While getting rid of all the animals is a nifty quick solution, I get frustrated that people don’t really take pause for the bigger implications. Overcrowding leads to unsanitary situations, which breeds disease. This is true for all species.

Animals shouldn’t eat their own poo. They also shouldn’t eat themselves. Think about it, would you want to eat Aunt Betty? Would you eat Aunt Betty’s poo? No. It’s sad, frustrating, and turns the stomach. There’s a reason for that, and it’s probably nature trying to keep us from doing something stupid. Animals that do eat their own kin or poo usually have a sort of developmental reason for it in tune with survival of the fittest. I’m sure cows wouldn’t eat their own if they had anything to do with it. They’re herbivores! As for the poo, well, ask yourself what it would take for you to eat your own poo. I know that the family dog occasionally will do this, but do you eat the family dog? As Samuel Jackson’s character noted in Pulp Fiction when discussing filthy animals, “I don’t eat dog.”

Regardless, this is what we do to cows and chickens on a fairly regular basis in commercial farming, and this is part of what makes farms such a great place for breeding illness. Add to that they are packed in there, especially in feedlots. I’ve seen a few chicken farms, and the “houses” are places that you have to wear a biolab suit to enter. Even outside the building it’s hard to breathe. It’s obvious that it’s not a good place to hang around.

These aren’t the issues that people think about when these fast moving illnesses get out there, but they’re the issues that will be more far reaching in terms of prevention. So long as we keep using these temporary solutions without looking deeper into the diseases’ development and links, then we’re going to keep running into the same wall. The bad thing about this is that each illness has it’s own virulent potential, and it’s impossible to model the speed these illnesses use to move across to human infection. Imagine what the stage would look like if this bird flu were let loose in India, or many parts of mainland China. It would take very little time for many people to die. It sounds a little like the culling of deer herds, if it weren’t for the fact that it was people that we’re talking about.

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