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Live poultry markets must also concern us

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Poorva Joshipura
Poorva Joshipura
Poorva Joshipura is the author of new meat exposé book For a Moment of Taste, and Senior VP of PETA Foundation based out of the UK, and former CEO of PETA India

Public health experts overwhelmingly believe that, like SARS, COVID-19 first infected humans through contact with wildlife at a live-animal meat market in China. This has resulted in a barrage of calls for the World Health Organization (WHO) to seek a ban on wildlife markets.

Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, the acting executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, supports the call for such a ban. Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is encouraging the global community to pressure nations to close down markets in which live and dead animals are sold for meat. Sixty bipartisan US lawmakers have also written to WHO and other global bodies urging them to protect public health by closing live wildlife markets. (They are also calling for a ban on the international trade in live wildlife when it is not for conservation.) Celebrities, from music legend Sir Paul McCartney to comedian Ricky Gervais, are among those who have condemned the types of markets in China where COVID-19 and SARS likely originated.

In describing these markets, which are often called “wet markets,” Dr Peter Li, an associate professor at the University of Houston–Downtown in the US, says, “The cages are stacked one over another. Animals at the bottom are often soaked with all kinds of liquid – animal excrement, pus, blood.” Such conditions allow viruses to spread, including to humans who come into contact with the animals. But it’s not just wild animals who pose a danger.  Pathogens don’t just infect species who live in the wild. As we all know, chickens at live poultry markets are kept in the very same way that Professor Li describes – including at markets that can be found in every Indian city and town.

In fact, according to WHO, in 1997, outbreaks of the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain of bird flu were found in poultry on farms and in live-animal meat markets in Hong Kong. That same year, Hong Kong became the site of the first-ever human infections with H5N1. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains that most human infections from this virus have occurred through contact with infected birds. Live poultry markets and the crowded factory farms where chickens are raised provide ample opportunity for that potentially lethal contact. When humans get infected, the mortality rate is about 60%. So People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) India and its affiliates are urging WHO to take the call for safety measures a step further by demanding the closure of all live-animal markets, regardless of the species of animal on sale.

The H5N1 virus is considered endemic in India, China, Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, and Vietnam. Just months after India had declared itself free of H5N1 and another strain of bird flu, in December 2017, a dead chicken from a meat shop in Bengaluru tested positive for H5N1. The Karnataka Animal Husbandry Department ordered meat shops in the surrounding region closed and put a check on the sale of eggs in the area. WHO explains, “H5N1 virus can be found inside and on the surface of eggs laid by infected birds.”

Earlier this year, H5N1 reared its ugly head once again, plaguing factory farms. It is thought that the virus spread from chicken farms in Karnataka to those in Kerala through the transport of chickens between those states. Chickens sold at live poultry markets come from such farms.

But it’s not just chickens who could make us sick or put us at risk of death. The CDC estimates that up to 575,400 people worldwide died from H1N1 swine flu just during the first year that that virus circulated. And, this year, 50 pigs died in Bihar from H1N1 swine flu, while a human patient there also tested positive for infection.

World-renowned primatologist Dr Jane Goodall recently remarked that the COVID-19 pandemic was caused by our disregard for nature and disrespect for animals. That’s true. And the same can be said for bird flu, swine flu, and even Ebola and HIV, both of which have been traced back to bush (wild animal) meat.

Systematic disregard for the largest number of animals occurs on filthy factory farms. According to Farm Animal Investment Risk and Return (FAIRR), over 70% of the world’s farmed animals are now factory-farmed. These farms house chickens, cows – even fish – and other animals by the thousands or sometimes by the millions, confining them to cages, crates or stalls barely larger than their own bodies or to severely crowded tanks or sheds. Antibiotics help factory farms, including fish farms, stay in business, since packed, filthy conditions mean diseases can spread quickly and result in high mortality. Globally, antibiotics are used more heavily in animal agriculture than in human medicine. This antibiotic overuse makes factory farms perfect breeding grounds for superbugs – new, aggressive pathogens – and simultaneously creates the potential for rendering important drugs for humans ineffective. Resistant infections are now estimated to kill more than 58,000 babies in India every year.

Elizabeth Mrema observed, “The message we are getting is if we don’t take care of nature, it will take care of us”. In her letter to WHO, PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk wrote, “It’s a matter of when—not if—the next pandemic will occur, as long as live-animal markets are permitted to continue endangering both humans and other animals.” The same is true of factory farms. As individuals, we can ensure that we’re part of the solution, not the problem, by eating vegan. Preventing the next pandemic is in our hands.

(Poorva Joshipura is the author of new meat exposé book For a Moment of Tasteand Senior VP of PETA Foundation based out of the UK, and former CEO of PETA India)

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Poorva Joshipura
Poorva Joshipura
Poorva Joshipura is the author of new meat exposé book For a Moment of Taste, and Senior VP of PETA Foundation based out of the UK, and former CEO of PETA India
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