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Coming Home to Roost? Book Review by Mark Hawthorne
Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching by Michael Greger, MD
(New York: Lantern Books, November, 2006). $30 hardcover. 465 pages.
Some years ago while living on Crete and desperate for a good book to read,
I bought the thickest paperback I could find: The Stand by Stephen King. King’s
most popular novel tells the apocalyptic tale of a rapidly mutating virus created
by humans that wipes out billions of people and brings a halt to civilization.
Reading in the comfort of my hostel each night, this chilling work of fiction
was highly entertaining but, of course, completely outlandish. Or maybe not.
Just as much a page-turner as King’s bestseller, Dr. Michael Greger’s
Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching is more terrifying than anything a horror
writer could imagine, since it depicts a real-life doomsday scenario that seems
poised to occur very soon; indeed, the new H5N1 strain of influenza, known as “bird
flu,” has mutated into a form that can be transmitted by human contact,
though not yet on a massive scale, meaning a mass outbreak is more a question
of when, not if.
Whereas humans generally contract the disease by ingesting contaminated birds
or being in frequent contact with them, bird flu could blanket the globe when
the virus learns to jump from human to human. The author writes: “One day
soon, experts fear, with more and more people becoming infected, the virus will
finally figure out the combination—the right combination of mutations to
spread not just in one elevator or building, but every building, everywhere,
around the globe. One superflu virus. It’s happened before, and experts
predict it may soon happen again.”
Dr. Greger sets the stage for what could come by giving readers a grisly account
of a previous avian influenza outbreak: the 1918 flu pandemic, in which 50 to
100 million humans perished. These were gruesome deaths, with blood oozing from
eye sockets as the victim’s lungs liquefied. Fatalities were so abundant
that officials were unable to keep up with burying the corpses. It seems this
was merely a sample of what’s in store for humanity. “As devastating
as the 1918 pandemic was,” Dr. Greger writes, “on average the mortality
rate was less than five percent. The H5N1 strain of bird flu virus now spreading
like a plague across the world currently kills about 50 percent of its known
human victims, on par with some strains of Ebola, making it potentially ten times
as deadly as the worst plague in human history.” One reason, he explains,
is the 1918 virus attacked only the lungs, whereas H5N1 shuts down all internal
The media have given bird flu a lot of attention, but they do very little parsing
of what it may entail. While many news sources have warned of impending catastrophe
and economic collapse, conservative pundits maintain all the talk of a disaster
is just perverse wishful thinking. What these skeptics seem to overlook is that
as global travel has become more commonplace in the last 300 years, pandemics
have developed a pattern, with a new one arriving about every 27.5 years. Dr.
Greger observes that 39 years is the longest we’ve gone between pandemics,
and the last one was the Hong Kong flu of 1968—39 years ago.
What Bird Flu does, then, is eloquently contextualize the subject, giving us
a greater understanding of the virus’ origins and our critical role in
it. The director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture at the Humane Society
of the United States, Dr. Greger examines bird flu from every angle, creating
a meticulously researched work that traces how agricultural, scientific, environmental,
political and economic forces have conspired to transform a virus that once threatened
only waterfowl into a “highly pathogenic avian influenza” destined
to lay waste to large segments of human population.
Among the stops on the author’s bird flu reality tour is President George
W. Bush’s decision in April of 2006 to lift the ban on poultry products
from China—a country well known for its recent outbreaks of avian influenza—possibly
in return for China’s agreement to drop its mad cow disease-related ban
on U.S. beef imports. (One disease for another, perhaps? No trade deficit there.)
Other troubling highlights include the world’s inadequate hospital capacity
and the inability to create a vaccine, or enough of it, to combat a virus that
kills half its victims. In other words, we are as ill-prepared for avian flu
today as we were in 1918. And, as Dr. Greger notes, not only is H5N1 worse than
what our grandparents faced, but 21st century transportation means a virus can
travel around the planet in 24 hours, not a year.
The book is also a sobering lesson in how many of our human ailments, from the
common cold to AIDS, have come from our oppression of animals, especially the
practice of breeding and raising them for food. (Dr. Greger notes that human
influenza began with the domestication of ducks 4,500 years ago.) Yet authorities
refuse to confront the obvious cause of this “virus of our own hatching,” preferring
instead to devote their resources to containing the outbreak by culling chickens
and turkeys and extolling the virtues of well-cooked meat.
Even without the looming pandemic, Bird Flu reminds us that eating animal flesh
can be deadly. Dr. Greger writes: “For the same reason that people don’t
get Dutch Elm Disease or ever seem to come down with a really bad case of aphids,
food products of animal origin are the source of most cases of food poisoning,
with chicken the most common culprit.” He notes that although the USDA
asserts that proper cooking methods kill all viruses, including bird flu, 76
million Americans still suffer food poisoning every year and an estimated 5,000
die from food-borne illness. The average American kitchen, it seems, has become
a biohazard, with pathogenic bacteria found on food-preparation surfaces, sinks
and utensils. Dr. Greger quotes flu expert Albert Osterhaus, who concluded that “the
gastrointestinal tract of humans is a portal of entry for H5N1.”
Bird Flu is exceptionally well documented, with more than 3,000 references and
input from the most respected names in the fields of communicable diseases and
virus research. With so many insights from health experts, food industry representatives
and medical journals, this is an excellent resource for animal advocates looking
to cite the latest data. Moreover, in an effort to make this book as accessible
as possible, Lantern Books has even posted the entire manuscript online at birdflubook.com.
Although a global pandemic seems inevitable, Dr. Greger’s landmark book
suggests an obvious (some might say radical) solution: the elimination of intensive
poultry production. Perhaps this is more wishful thinking, given the world’s
ever-growing appetite for cheap animal protein, but others in the scientific
community are also supporting this recommendation, so we may at least see improvements
in the way agribusiness operates. Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching could
herald dramatic changes in farming practices, finally driving decision-makers
to critically examine not only how this virus came to be, but how we can curtail
it and future diseases lurking within animal factories around the globe.
Mark Hawthorne is a California-based activist and a contributing writer for Satya.