For the Birds Radio Program: Bird Flu

Original Air Date: Feb. 9, 2004

Millions of chickens are being slaughtered as some humans have died from bird flu. (Date confirmed)

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Bird Flu

When birds are in the news, the stories are usually light and airy. But suddenly one of the heavy, scary stories looming in national and international news is about bird flu. The particular strain of the virus has killed at least 18 people in Asia, and is deadly enough that to slow or prevent its spread, over 50 million chickens have been slaughtered in Asia. Governments in Thailand, China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Pakistan, and Taiwan are now battling the disease. So far, the strain hitting Pakistan and Taiwan is not considered deadly to humans, but already some strains of the virus have evolved to affect pigs which in turn have also apparently spread the virus to humans. And the virus has appeared in a handful of wild birds as well. Now this weekend bird flu has been found in chickens in Delaware. The Delaware Secretary of Agriculture said that the strain was not the same as the one that had killed people in Asia, but because the virus has evolved to become more dangerous in other places, more than 12,000 chickens were immediately quarantined until they could be slaughtered and disposed of. Meanwhile early this week all farms within 2 miles of the infected birds will be tested. But South Korea and Japan have suspended all US poultry imports indefinitely. Japan may again open imports to the states that never have had evidence of Bird Flu, if they can verify that the strain in the US is, indeed, not affecting humans, though they’ll continue the ban on poultry imports from Delaware, and also Rhode Island and Connecticut, where Bird Flu was found last year.

The spread of the disease reminds me of avian conjunctivitis—the eye disease that has decimated the eastern population of House Finches in the US. As with the bird flu, avian conjunctivitis originated with the poultry industry—in that case, on turkey farms. Feeding the world’s ever-growing human population and the morphing of family farms into industrial concerns have changed the face of agriculture. The intensive farming of poultry, with birds overcrowded and in a constant state of stress make them more vulnerable to disease, their eggs and carcasses more likely to carry botulism and other dangerous organisms. But rather than relieve the overcrowding and make production a little more humane, agriculture simply started lacing poultry feed with antibiotics, which in the short term prevented a fraction of these diseases but in the long term has been the number one cause of so many disease bacteria evolving resistances to antibiotics. The same chemical industry that brought us DDT and a sudden overload in commercials about erectile dysfunction makes its profits by overselling these antibiotics. The systematic overcrowding of poultry also increases the likelihood of various other organisms, such as the bird flu virus, evolving and becoming a danger to farm animals, wild animals, and even human beings.

So now, in this time when the government is issuing color-coded alerts to take rights from citizens, we have yet one more thing to fear. We look to Washington for someone to empower the American people again, to remind us that fear is the greatest danger of all in a free society, and that our once genuinely democratic government did a far better job than corporate interests are doing to protect human health, finding the cures for diseases, and eradicating such scourges as small pox and polio. Instead, when we look to Washington all we see is more corporate interests, more corporations capitalizing on sickness and death and fear, and we squelch the voices of anyone who stands up to this. Whether or not the dangerous strains of bird flu reach the United States, we’ve become a nation of chickens.