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KF: Does handling or eating chicken or pork increase the chances of contracting the virus?
MG: There are certainly lots of viruses people can pick up from handling fresh meat, such as those that cause unpleasant conditions like contagious pustular dermatitis and a well-defined medical condition known as "butcher's warts." Even the wives of butchers appear to be at higher risk for cervical cancer, a cancer definitively associated with wart virus exposure. Cooking can destroy the flu virus, but the same can be said for all the bugs that sicken 76 million Americans a year. The problem is that people can cross-contaminate kitchen surfaces with fresh or frozen meat before pathogens have been cooked to death. There have been a number of cases of human influenza linked to the consumption of poultry products, but it's not clear whether swine flu viruses get into the meat. Regardless, the primary risk is not in the meat, but how meat is produced. Once a new disease is spawned from factory farm conditions it may be able spread person to person, and at that point animals--live or dead--may be out of the picture.
KF: How do we stave off this viral apocalypse?
MG: We need to give these animals more breathing room. The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, which included a former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, concluded that industrialized animal agriculture posed "unacceptable" public health risks and called for gestation crates for pigs to be banned as they're already doing in Europe, noting that "[p]ractices that restrict natural motion, such as sow gestation crates, induce high levels of stress in the animals and threaten their health, which in turn may threaten human health."
Studies have shown that measures as simple as providing straw for pigs so they don't have the immune-crippling stress of living on bare concrete their whole lives can significantly cut down on swine flu transmission rates. Such a minimal act--providing straw--yet we often deny these animals even this modicum of mercy, both to their detriment and, potentially, to ours as well.
The American Public Health Association, the largest organization of public health professionals in the world, has called for a moratorium on factory farms. In fact the APHA journal, the American Journal of Public Health, published an editorial going beyond just calling for an end to factory farms. It questioned the prudence of raising so many animals in the first place: "It is curious...that changing the way humans treat animals--most basically, ceasing to eat them or, at the very least, radically limiting the quantity of them that are eaten--is largely off the radar as a significant preventive measure. Such a change, if sufficiently adopted or imposed, could still reduce the chances of the much-feared influenza epidemic. It would be even more likely to prevent unknown future diseases that, in the absence of this change, may result from farming animals intensively and from killing them for food. Yet humanity does not consider this option....Those who consume animals not only harm those animals and endanger themselves, but they also threaten the well-being of other humans who currently or will later inhabit the planet....[I]t is time for humans to remove their heads from the sand and recognize the risk to themselves that can arise from their maltreatment of other species."
KF: That is a pretty stunning statement! I know people will wonder...."If we give up animal protein, will our immune system be compromised... or will it be enhanced?"
MG: We've known for 20 years that the immune function of those eating vegetarian may be superior to those eating meat. First published in 1989, researchers at the German Cancer Research Center found that although vegetarians had the same number of disease-fighting white blood cells compared to meat eaters, the immune cells of vegetarians were twice as effective in destroying their targets--not only cancer cells, but virus-infected cells as well. So a more plant-based diet may protect both now and in the future against animal-borne diseases like pandemic influenza.