Influenzas Compared

There are a lot of worries about the recent outbreak of H7N9 virus in China. Want to know how it stacks up against other deadly viruses when it comes to what species it can infect, and how deadly it is?

Or course you do, and, happily, there is an infographic for that. And it should be enough to make you re-think the human relationship with pigs and chickens (click image for full size):

H7N9 Avian Flu “Contagion” Threat Level: Orange

Initially, worries about deaths from H7N9 in China were dismissed as paranoid. But now H979 is at starting to live up to the hype:

Six people are dead from the H7N9 strain of avian flu. The number of infected has grown to to 14. A new scare just hit Hong Kong. The United States has begun early research for a vaccine. And now China has slaughtered 20,000 chickens, ducks, geese, and pigeons — and shut down its live poultry markets — to try and cut off the health risk at the source. So: Is it time to panic yet?

Well, not exactly.

We’re not doctors, obviously, but the people at the World Health Organization said on Friday that they still haven’t found proof of “sustained human-to-human transmission” of [H7N9], reports Reuters. That’s the key difference between this latest scare going from a relatively isolated virus incident into full-fledged Contagion panic. In Hollywood terms, we’re about at the stage where the pig has left the farm but not yet arrived at the table with Gwyneth Paltrow. And while [H7N9] isn’t thought to be quite horror-movie bad, we might be at the point where Kate Winslet is about to get called in: The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta is already working to develop a vaccine, CNN reports, although U.S. and Chinese scientists still haven’t exactly accounted for how humans developed the virus.

In order to stem the tide, China has culled tens of thousands of birds along with a poultry-market shutdown. And while 20,000 animals might seem a lot of stock, well, Mexico had bird flu fears of their own last year and killed 8 million chickens in August as a precaution. So, that’s another good takeaway — provided you are not a duck, goose, or chicken hanging out in Shanghai.

I’d rather see “proof” that there isn’t “sustained human-to-human transmission.” Because absence of proof does not mean absence of  transmission, which presumably why the CDC is going all Kate Winslet and thinking about a vaccine.

Again, whether this plays out as feared or not, get used to this sort of scare. We’ll see it again and again because our livestock practices are nicely set up to create it. Is meat really worth it?

Did China’s Meat Production Practices Create The Possibility Of A New Pandemic?

Laurie Garrett (free sign-up required) at Foreign Policy thinks the answer may be, “yes”:

Here’s how it would happen. Children playing along an urban river bank would spot hundreds of grotesque, bloated pig carcasses bobbing downstream. Hundreds of miles away, angry citizens would protest the rising stench from piles of dead ducks and swans, their rotting bodies collecting by the thousands along river banks. And three unrelated individuals would stagger into three different hospitals, gasping for air. Two would quickly die of severe pneumonia and the third would lay in critical condition in an intensive care unit for many days. Government officials would announce that a previously unknown virus had sickened three people, at least, and killed two of them. And while the world was left to wonder how the pigs, ducks, swans, and people might be connected, the World Health Organization would release deliberately terse statements, offering little insight.

It reads like a movie plot — I should know, as I was a consultant for Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion. But the facts delineated are all true, and have transpired over the last six weeks in China. The events could, indeed, be unrelated, and the new virus, a form of influenza denoted as H7N9, may have already run its course, infecting just three people and killing two.

Or this could be how pandemics begin.

We all know (or at least by now should know) about the cruelty and environmental impact of industrial meat production. And we know that there are personal health implications related to heart disease. What most people don’t know is that factory farms and modern livestock practices create ripe scenarios for new viruses and antibiotic resistant bacteria. The H7N9 virus may turn out not to be the pandemic health experts have feared might emanate from livestock. But even if it is not, it is a reminder that we have knowingly created conditions which probably will at some point produce a deadly pandemic. A definite “reap what you sow” situation, and an example of a modern threat that is much more worrisome than all the traditional threats (terrorism, for example) that we tend to spend time and money on.

This is yet another powerful reason that vegetarian and vegan practices would make for a lot safer, more inhabitable, planet in the future. (h/t Earth In Transition, for flagging Garrett’s piece).

Just one more environmental note on China, and an example of why China might end up wondering whether it was really so wise to try and emulate the western development and consumption model. Air Pollution Linked to 1.2 Million Premature Deaths in China:

Outdoor air pollution contributed to 1.2 million premature deaths in China in 2010, nearly 40 percent of the global total, according to a new summary of data from a scientific study on leading causes of death worldwide.

Figured another way, the researchers said, China’s toll from pollution was the loss of 25 million healthy years of life from the population.

That’s a big price to pay, no matter how you look at it.