July 9, 2006
3:08 AM

Eating, Epidemics, Extermination & the Electric Car

"Part of the secret of success in life is to eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside."
—Mark Twain

The pandemic scourge of this age (other than poverty, racism, inequity and the incessant devouring of the earth for her resources) is undoubtedly AIDS.

In an interview with Stephen Lewis, he called AIDS "...the worst plague in human history. Nothing approximates what's being done by HIV/AIDS. Not even the black death of the 14th century. People talk about the avian flu and it is pretty apocalyptic sounding if it were to happen. But spare me. We've got an apocalypse on our hands now and it has to be addressed."

The effect of AIDS on any index measuring quality of life—from personal health to economic potential to state security or even human inequality—is both brutal and incalculable.

It is interesting that Stephen Lewis mentions the avian flu—the threat of which looms heavily, evidently—for I was going there next. The only part of the causal chain of viral advancement that keeps avian flu from spreading into the pandemic stage amongst humans is its current inefficiency in human-to-human transmission.1 The avian flu virus—regardless of what it might become—has yet to figure out how to fully crash the human party.

According to some, former factory-farm cattle rancher Howard Lyman for example, a similar potential threat to the human population is a progressive neurological disorder known as mad cow disease, or Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE).2 Passed from infected cow to human, this virus has also thankfully not yet achieved efficient human-to-human transmission.

So what do these lethal viruses seem to have in common?

They all originate in humans from our relationship with animals—primarily as food—and then take on a life of their own.

The AIDS virus (HIV) is thought to have evolved from a "simian" virus (SIV) found in chimpanzees.3 At some point that virus crossed the species barrier to humans—most likely through the consumption and/or butchering of an infected West African chimpanzee in the 1930s—and became lethal. The first confirmed case of a person with HIV is from the Congo in 1959.

Starvation notwithstanding, and with the horrors of cannibalism in mind, one could ask: what sustainable good could possibly come from the eating of our closest non-human kin?

Yogis state the problem this way: eating high up on the food chain—chimpanzees, beef, poultry and so on down the line—is effective for building muscle, but from a spiritual point of view thickens and thus lowers consciousness. In other words, flesh builds flesh (which is why it is also expedient to feed animal products back to herbivorous cows) but also tends to increase aggression and ignorance.

It goes without saying, of course (speaking from experience), that a vegetarian can still be highly ignorant—or that one who eats meat can be highly conscious.

HIV is a durable and efficient human-to-human transmitter. The virus also mutates with remarkable rapidity, making it challenging for epidemiologists to control through drugs (hence the antiretroviral triple cocktail), let alone develop a vaccine.

By 2006, an estimated 70 million people worldwide had been infected with HIV.

As for the feared avian flu, the World Health Organization has this to say:

"Domestic poultry, including chickens and turkeys, are particularly susceptible to epidemics of rapidly fatal influenza.

Research has shown that viruses of low pathogenicity can, after circulation for sometimes short periods in a poultry population, mutate into highly pathogenic viruses.

The first documented infection of humans with an avian influenza virus occurred in Hong Kong in 1997, when the H5N1 strain caused severe respiratory disease in 18 humans, of whom 6 died. The infection of humans coincided with an epidemic of highly pathogenic avian influenza, caused by the same strain, in Hong Kong's poultry population."

It also appears that factory farming practices increase the possibility of pandemic. Again from the WHO:

"Apart from being highly contagious, avian influenza viruses are readily transmitted from farm to farm by mechanical means, such as by contaminated equipment, vehicles, feed, cages, or clothing."

Would it be irrelevant to point out that factory farm poultry are considered by many the most brutally treated animals on the planet? The numbers (70 or 80 billion a year) and the deplorable conditions from birth to slaughter are efficiently heinous. Chicken McNuggets could turn out to be Chicken McKarma—in the saddest possible sense.

As for human beef consumption, single slabs of meat are thought to be safer than hamburgers, sausages and pâtés, which can be the ground-up remains of innumerable cows in their entirety (or pigs, sheep, goats or poultry) and thus may include the brain and spinal cord (which are believed to be the most highly infected parts). Although rare cases of mad cow disease still do appear (and rumours persist), feeding cows back to cows—called ruminent-to-ruminent feeding—was banned in Canada and the US in 1997.

I know, as always, I'm probably flogging a dead (and hopefully uninfected) horse, but I find it discomfortingly instructive that AIDS, avian flu and mad cow disease are all likely the result of meat consumption that in some ways came from less than ideal circumstances (even disregarding the ethics).

It is sometimes whispered (or yelled) that petro-politicians, big oil companies and gas-engine automobile producers—for obvious economic reasons—kiboshed for decades development of the electric car. So what stops us having common knowledge of the link between the origins of AIDS—and the possibility of avian flu or mad cow disease—and the consumption of infected meat?

Our friend the chimp, of course, is no longer the cause of HIV transmission but the threat of avian influenza and mad cow disease may well be lessened through changing our meat preparation and consumption practices. Seeing as we're the consumer, why let shareholder profits once again trump compassion and health?

In the legendary words of a McDonald's jingle, don't we all deserve a break today?

I'll let the Centre For Disease Control in Atlanta (hardly a hotbed of either vegetarianism or conspiracy theory) have the final word on mad cow disease:

"[Mad cow disease] possibly originated as a result of the feeding of scrapie-containing sheep meat-and-bone meal to cattle [scrapie is a generally fatal disease affecting the nervous system of sheep and goats]. There is strong evidence and general agreement that the [mad cow Disease] outbreak was amplified and spread throughout the UK cattle industry by feeding rendered bovine [cattle] meat-and-bone meal to young calves."4

That's it: a few thoughts on the worst pandemic in history and two potential pandemics—with a devastating avian flu outbreak, according to some, highly likely. I actually have well-educated, wealthy, mentally-stable friends with full-fledged "get-away" plans should the pandemic hit—committed meat eaters, incidentally. As far as I know, I'm not on their list of evacuees.

Either way, hopefully they (and I) have got this all wrong.

In the meantime, salad anyone?




(1) From the World Health Organization (WHO):

" During a 1983-1984 epidemic in the United States of America, the H5N2 virus initially caused low mortality, but within six months became highly pathogenic, with a mortality approaching 90%. Control of the outbreak required destruction of more than 17 million birds at a cost of nearly US$ 65 million. During a 1999-2001 epidemic in Italy, the H7N1 virus, initially of low pathogenicity, mutated within 9 months to a highly pathogenic form. More than 13 million birds died or were destroyed."

(2) From the Centre for Disease Control (CDC):

"As of March 2006, a total of 190 cases of vCJD [mad cow disease in humans] have been reported worldwide; of these, 160 occurred in the United Kingdom. Two cases have been reported in the United States...Through the end of April 2005, more than 184,000 cases of [mad cow disease] had been confirmed in the United Kingdom alone in more than 35,000 herds."

(3) See Avert.org for a very informative website on AIDS. The site includes brief (and fair) descriptions of the possible origins of AIDS.

See also The Age of AIDS, a fantastic in-depth multi-houred documentary on the history of the disease that can be watched (and read) for free on the remarkable PBS Frontline website.

(4) See WHO on BSE.



copyright 2006 Pete McCormack