Tag Archives: Animals and Public Health

Chapters from the book: Animals and Public Health

Chapter 4. Foul Farms: The State of Animal Agriculture

As disturbing as the wildlife trade is in fostering the development of new infectious diseases, recent events suggest that the biggest and most imminent threat may lie much closer to home. Between 2007 and 2008, farmers in the Philippines noticed that pigs were falling sick and dying by the hundreds for unknown reasons. A subsequent investigation confirmed the presence of porcine reproductive and respiratory disease syndrome, a serious illness among pigs. But, much to the surprise of the investigators, a subtype of Ebola virus, Ebola Reston, was also discovered circulating in a sample of the pigs. This was the first time Ebola of any strain had been found in these animals. ‘We never thought that pigs could be infected’, says Pierre Rollin, an Ebola expert at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).Rollin believes that Ebola Reston is to blame for the pigs’ deaths because tissue studies revealed that the virus had pervaded the spleen, similar to its mode of attack in monkeys.

Ebola Reston is named after the strain that was discovered in monkeys shipped to laboratories in the USA from the Philippines on several occasions between 1989 and 1996. The first shipment of Ebola virus was discovered after hundreds of monkeys became severely ill or died in a quarantine facility owned by Hazleton Laboratories (now Covance, Inc.) in Reston, Virginia. Because this was the first confirmed instance of Ebola entering the USA, a panic swept across American health agencies. All remaining monkeys at the facility were euthanized and the building was eventually demolished. Although evidence revealed that humans were also infected, Ebola Reston proved to cause at worst only a mild flu-like illness in humans, unlike all other known strains of the virus. Thus, Ebola Reston, although deadly in monkeys, was deemed only a minor threat to us. However, new fears are rising since Ebola Reston was discovered in pigs.

The industrialization and mass production of animals for food is now among the biggest contributing factors to emerging infectious diseases over the past few decades. Pigs and other animals raised for food are critical sources of zoonotic pathogens that threaten human health and have been directly implicated in the emergence of the H5Nl avian influenza virus, the 2009 H1N1 ‘swine flu’ pandemic virus, the rise in foodborne infectious diseases, and other significant infectious pathogens and diseases. To understand how and why animal agriculture fosters the emergence of new pathogens, it helps to get a glimpse of the experiences of animals raised on modern ‘farms.’

Humans are consuming more animals than ever before. Once viewed as a luxury, meat is now becoming a dietary staple for many due to a worldwide growth in urbanized populations and affluence. Today, more than 64 billion animals are raised and killed for food worldwide annually. That means that more than nine farmed animals exist for every human at any one time. China and the USA are among the largest farmed animal producers in the world. In the USA alone, an excess of 9 billion land animals are slaughtered annually for food, approximately 1 million per hour. On average, each American eats the equivalent of 21,000 animals in his/her lifetime. And, global meat production is expected to double by 2020. Consequently, over the last half-century, a dramatic shift has taken place in the animal agriculture industry that may represent the most profound change in the relationship between humans and animals since animals were first domesticated.

In the name of efficiency, the industry has chosen to sacrifice the space and well-being of animals. Traditional farming practices in which animals were permitted to roam outdoors prior to slaughter have largely been replaced by immense, intensive animal operations. These concentrated animal-feeding operations (CAFOs) or factory farms changed the status of animals like nothing had before. The industrialized methods of raising animals for food have spread throughout much of the world. The result is that traditional farms in developing nations are being replaced at a rate of more than 4 per cent a year. The independent family farm is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Today, most animals raised for food are produced by a few immense agribusiness corporations that intensively confine animals by the hundreds or thousands in consolidated operations. This demand-driven transformation of animal agriculture is so dramatic that it has been dubbed the ‘Livestock Revolution.’

Chapter 5. Animal Agriculture: Our Health and Our Environment

Even if we could, no matter how unlikely, contain the pathogens running amok among factory farms, we are still faced with a much larger problem. This is because there are just too many animals being produced for food: animals grown for meat and dairy products account for 20 per cent of the world’s terrestrial animal biomass. To sustain this massive production requires unprecedented quantities of water, energy, land, pesticides and feed crops (crops fed to farmed animals). In exchange for all these depleted resources, we get polluted water, air and land, and perhaps one of the most significant climate transformations in human history.

In September 1999, Hurricane Floyd hit the eastern part of North Carolina, acting as a catalyst for the environmental disaster that followed. As many as 50 animal waste lagoons, some of them several acres in size, filled with floodwaters and overflowed. This manure flowed into the surrounding wetlands and groundwater aquifers, resulting in massive contamination and pollution of drinking water. In addition to multi-antibiotic-resistant fecal bacteria and antibiotics, excess levels of nitrogen nutrients were discovered in the groundwater near some of the farms following the flooding. North Carolina is the second largest pig producer in the USA; pig production in that state alone exploded in the 1990s, growing from 2.6 million pigs in 1988 to almost 10 million today, most of them confined to factory farms. The aftermath of Hurricane Floyd highlighted the disturbing environmental implications of industrial animal agriculture.

In the USA, animal agriculture is responsible for 32 and 33 per cent, respectively, of the nitrogen and phosphorus loads found in freshwater sources. The problem with these nutrients is that, like manure, there are too much of them. The application of manure to cropland and leakage from manure lagoons cause nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients to run off agricultural land and into waterways. Excess nutrient loading of waterways causes eutrophication, or overfertilization, leading to loss of oxygen, algal blooms and massive die-offs of fish and other animal populations. Most marine algae are harmless. However, the growth of several toxic species of algae is boosted by nutrient supersaturation. These species produce potent neurotoxins that can be transferred through the food web, where they adversely affect and kill fish, birds, marine mammals and humans that either directly come in contact with or consume them.

One harmful species, Pfiesteria, is believed to be the cause of massive fish kills along the eastern shore of the USA. It produces a potent neurotoxin and an epidermal toxin that have been linked to significant neurological illness and skin lesions in humans. Additionally, nitrogen in manure and liquid waste can contaminate drinking water. These nitrates, which are associated with human health risks, have been identified by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as the most widespread agricultural contaminant in drinking water wells. Elevated nitrate levels in water can cause severe methemoglobinemia (‘blue baby syndrome’), particularly in infants. This is a frequently fatal condition in which the blood has a reduced capacity to carry oxygen.

Excess nitrates and eutrophication render water unfit for drinking. Compounding the eutrophication of our waterways, animal agriculture also consumes 70 per cent of the freshwater supply and is among the most damaging industries to the earth’s increasingly scarce water resources, contributing significantly to water pollution. According to the EPA, agriculture, is ‘the leading contributor to identified water quality impairments in the nation’s rivers and streams, lakes, ponds, and reservoirs’. In excess of 129,000 miles of streams and rivers and more than 3.2 million acres of lakes have been impaired as a result of agriculture, a significant part due to animal waste and factory farms. The primary pollutants associated with animal waste are nutrients (particularly nitrogen and phosphorus), organic matter, solids and odorous/volatile compounds.

Animal waste also contains pesticides, hormones and, of course, pathogens and antibacterials. Pollutants in animal waste can impact water supplies through several possible pathways, including surface runoff, erosion, spills, direct discharge to surface waters and leaching into soil and groundwater. Atmospheric transport is another major pathway by which nitrogen and other pollutants are deposited back to the land and waterways. More than 80 per cent of ammonia emissions in Europe are generated by animal agriculture. Factory farm waste emits a number of pollutants of concern to human health, including heavy metals, volatile gases, methane, nitrous oxide and hydrogen sulphide.

Chapter 7. The New Public Health

We now have a choice before us. Do we use our knowledge to continue to condemn animals to incalculable harm, in turn jeopardizing our own health, or do we use that knowledge to evolve the practice of public health and improve the welfare of all? Do we continue to ignore the sad plight of animals who are abused, traded, eaten and used for experiments and consequently ignore how their plight affects our own health, or do we use our scientific advances and knowledge to fight against abuse, protect animals and their habitats, clothe ourselves without animal skins and fur, entertain ourselves without debasing animals, and feed ourselves and produce medicines without hurting animals?

We can do all of these things today. In fact, we are at an amazing crossroads in human history. We can largely exist and, even more, exist better without compromising the welfare of animals. Curtailing our harmful practices against animals will significantly reduce a great many of the problems that currently threaten our health and welfare.

How often in life are we given the opportunity to tackle several major obstacles to both our individual and collective health—and deal with the ethical conundrum of our poor treatment of animals—with rather simple solutions? In comparison with so many other obstacles that public health faces, such as poverty, war and social inequities, the improvement of animal welfare is often a relatively easy goal to accomplish. A gesture as simple as choosing one plate of food over another can single-handedly help thwart epidemics, curtail global warming and lengthen our lives—and reduce the number of animals in factory farms. By redirecting our medical resources toward the use and development of human-based tests, we can create far more predictive testing methods and avoid significant harm to animals. Striving to minimize the harms we cause to animals does not require us to abandon our quest to further human health. Rather, our endeavor to improve human health will be substantially advanced by promoting better treatment of animals.

Why Our Health Depends on Treating Animals Better

An international group of scientists recently ended a year-long moratorium on controversial research on potentially deadly strains of the H5N1 avian flu virus. The purpose of the research was to engineer strains of H5N1 in order to understand how it might gain the ability to spread easily among people.

Regardless of whether or not this research continues, you can bet one thing: Our risk for a deadly form of the “bird flu” virus and other pathogens remain high as long as we don’t improve our treatment of animals.

Read full article here.

How Protecting Animals Benefits Us, Too

Do we need to make a choice to either protect animals or humans? This is certainly what those who profit from hurting animals would like everyone to believe.  Advocates of animal experimentation especially employ the fallacy of a false dilemma: that we must choose to care about human suffering or about animal suffering, and that we cannot do both. This erroneous thinking leads us to believe that we must either experiment on a mouse (or a dog or monkey …) or we must experiment on a human child, implying that we are forced to make a choice—it’s the animals or us.

However, not only is this notion that we must either protect animals or humans not true, in fact, the opposite is true. The human plight is inextricably tied with that of other animals.

Read the full article in Vegan Publishers

My article headlined in Science Blog by former director of the National Institutes of Occupational Safety and Health

Dr. Anthony Robbins, Co-Editor of the Journal of Public Health Policy and former director of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health and of the National Vaccine Program headline my article in his latest post on Science Blog’s The Pump Handle as he argues against the US Ag Gag laws. He says:

“There is growing concern about mistreatment of animals and its consequences for public health.  In a recent commentary published in the Journal of Public Health Policy, Aysha Akhtar describes how effective animal protection would have at least three important effects:

  • Reduce the incidence of emerging in factions, as poor treatment of animals contributes to the spread of new infectious diseases.
  • Medical research would also benefit from better animal treatment.
  • Domestic violence might be reduced is animal mistreatment were seen as  sentinel events that could trigger early intervention.”

Read The need to include animal protection in public health policies by Dr. Robbins.

Photo: Farm Sanctuary

The Need to Include Animal Protection in Public Health Policies

Many critical public health issues require non-traditional approaches. Although many novel strategies are used, one approach not widely applied involves improving the treatment of animals. Emerging infectious diseases are pressing public health challenges that could benefit from improving the treatment of animals. Other human health issues, that overlap with animal treatment issues, and that warrant further exploration, are medical research and domestic violence. The diverse nature of these health issues and their connection with animal treatment suggest that there may be other similar intersections. Public health would benefit by including the treatment of animals as a topic of study and policy development.

Read the full article: Journal of Public Health Policy

Read review of Animals and Public Health on Huffington Post

Kathy Freston on Huffington Post writes:
I’ve often said that by showing kindness to animals and eating fewer (or better yet, none) of them, we see personal health benefits — a reduction in heart disease, stroke, cancers, diabetes and obesity. What’s good for animals is good for us!

Now there’s an intriguing new book that extends my thesis of holistic well-being beyond food and into a variety of other areas of human interaction with animals.

In Animals and Public Health: Why Treating Animals Better is Critical to Human Welfare, Dr. Aysha Akhtar, a public health specialist, neurologist from the FDA’s Office of Counterterrorism and Emerging Threats, and HuffPost blogger, looks at the interlocking animal and human health issues involved in domestic violence, animal fighting, animal attacks, the wildlife trade, factory farming, climate change, and drug development.

Read full review on the Huffington Post.