Why Our Health Depends on Treating Animals Better

Regardless of whether or not this controversial 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.
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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.

Our unprecedented worldwide demand for meat, eggs, and dairy products is proving to be hazardous -- both to other animals and to us. In the U.S. alone, more than 9 billion land animals are slaughtered annually for meat -- that's about 1 million animals per hour -- and world meat production is expected to double by 2020. [1] Animals raised for food are now ubiquitously crammed into factory farms, living in profoundly filthy and cruel conditions, which reduces their ability to fight off infections.

By cramming billions of animals into factory farms, we have created a worldwide natural laboratory for the rapid development of a deadly and highly infectious form of H5N1 and other influenza viruses. Despite numerous attempts to curtail the virus, including vaccinating and "culling" chickens, H5N1 keeps reemerging and will do so as long as factory farms exist.

Multiple studies demonstrate that dense confinement of animals is the greatest factor leading to the emergence of new influenza viruses on farms. [2, 3, 4, 5] Viruses pass readily from animal to animal in these operations, and every transmission to another animal spurs the evolution of the virus and brings us closer to a pandemic.

As these studies show, there is a clear link between the evolution and spread of influenza viruses and the treatment of animals. In the past few decades, the world has witnessed an alarming surge in new infectious diseases. In addition to factory farming, some of the most profound pathogens we have encountered are a result of the wildlife trade.

Yearly, millions of animals are sold for use as pets, "entertainment," food, leather, fur, medicinal objects and biomedical research subjects. The emergence and spread of HIV/AIDs, Ebola, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), monkey pox, and the reemergence of malaria and dengue fever, to name a few, can be blamed on this massive wildlife trade. [6]

These examples illustrate the important connection between human and animal welfare. In fact, as I describe in my book, Animals and Public Health: Why Treating Animals Better Is Critical to Human Welfare, a significant number of the most critical health issues we face today are inseparable from our treatment of animals. In addition to infectious disease epidemics, this includes climate change, the biodiversity crisis (and its resultant human impact), domestic violence and medical research failures.

In this series of posts, I am going to describe how, in multiple ways, when we treat animals poorly, our collective health suffers. On the other hand, when we treat other animals well, there are direct and indirect benefits to human health.

In other words, what's good for animals is also what's good for us. If we are to truly combat our current health threats, we must acknowledge their link with the treatment of animals so that we can address the underlying roots of these health problems. If we do not recognize this connection, opportunities to successfully tackle these health crises will be lost.

Up next, a look at domestic violence and its connection with animal abuse.


1. Akhtar A, et al. "Health professionals' roles in animal agriculture, climate change and human health." AJPM 2009; 36: 182-187.

2. Leibler JH, et al. "Industrial food animal production and global health risks: Exploring the ecosystems and economics of avian influenza" EcoHealth 2009; 6: 58-70.

3. Capua I, Alexander DJ. "Animal and human health implications of avian influenza infections" Bioscience Reports 2007; 27: 359-372

4. Peiris JSM, et al. "Avian influenza virus (H5N1): A threat to human health" Clinical Microbiology Reviews 2007; 20: 243-267

5. Busani L, et al. "Risk factors for highly pathogenic H7N1 avian influenza virus infection in poultry during the 1999-2000 epidemic in Italy" The Veterinary Journal 2009; 181: 171-177.

6. Akhtar A. "Animals and Public Health: Why Treating Animals Better Is Critical to Human Welfare." (NY: Palgrave Macmillan) 2012, p61-85

For more by Aysha Akhtar, click here.

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