11th January 2024
Reducing the Risk of Future Pandemics
In the midst of the various crises currently unfolding, from famine to war and all the way up to existential planetary concerns, we hardly need a new global pandemic coming at us. Yet, we are firmly set on a course that is, on a daily basis, increasing that risk.
The latest outbreak of the highly pathogenic avian influenza (bird flu) reached North America in December 2021 – in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. Subsequently, viruses have been confirmed in wild birds, backyard flocks, commercial poultry facilities and wild mammals in both Canada and the United States. Avian influenza causes severe disease and high mortality in infected birds. Detections of avian influenza in mammals were recorded in 2022 and 2023, including seals, skunks, mountain lions, red foxes, raccoons and even a bottlenose dolphin. Many more mammals are expected to join this growing list over the coming months.
On 6th December last, the Alaska State Veterinarian confirmed that a polar bear had died from avian influenza, in what is believed to be the first recorded case of a polar bear dying from the virus. The bear was found dead in October, near Utqiagvik in Alaska. Polar bears normally eat seals but it’s believed that this bear caught the virus by eating a dead bird.
Scientists and scientific bodies are at pains to reassure the public that avian flu poses little or no threat to humans. Yet those same scientists understand that the more prevalent a virus is, the greater the chance of mutation, and with a rapidly mutating virus, no one can predict the outcome. Put simply, the more mutations there are, the greater the risk of animal to human transmission, the next step being human to human transmission.
No one disputes the fact that factory farms are breeding grounds for viruses. Because of the way we are now farming animals intensively, once disease enters the closed environment, it spreads rapidly among the immuno-compromised animals inside. With tens of billions of animals – mainly chickens and pigs – crammed into sheds together all over the world, including here in Ireland where 100 million birds and 3.5 million pigs are raised in sheds each year, it is surely only a matter of time before another serious zoonotic event occurs.
By moving away rapidly from the factory farming model of animal agriculture, we are at least reducing the risk of future pandemics, and surely that is a no-brainer.