The avian flu problem is not just for the birds

While the risk of human-to-human spread of this new variant seems to be of low concern for now, the effects of the virus among birds and mammals, both wild and in captivity, could be catastrophic.

Dr Khayriyyah Mohd Hanafiah

Dr Khayriyyah Mohd Hanafiah

The Star


February 24, 2023

KUALA LUMPUR – I LOVE fried chicken; this is my unabashed admission.

Be it the standard spicy variety from your fried chicken vendor of choice, or sticky sesame-seed-covered Korean-style wings, or the mouth-watering crispy red chicken an Aunty sells at a student café in USM, or the turmeric cumin spiced chicken my mother makes – every now and then a desire to inhale a piece of fried chicken and gnaw it to the bone hits me like a bolt of lightning.

There was a time, though, when I managed to stave off my habitual desire for chicken (or any meat) for almost five years.

I became strictly pescatarian after a fateful undergraduate internship at a poultry vaccine development laboratory.

Processing samples from dead chicks delivered unceremoniously in iceboxes daily, and one particular session observing a worker there unblinkingly crack eggs containing embryos at various stages (one embryo was still kicking briefly after being tossed aside), made me realise how our rampant desire to eat meat and poultry has created systems that encourage inhumane aspects of producing them.

When I tried to eat chicken afterwards, I felt nauseated.

Fast forward 12 years after a return to eating chicken and I am reminded again about the problems of the poultry industry given a new twist in the unfolding saga of bird flu outbreaks, caused by the highly pathogenic avian influenza strain H5N1, in the past two decades.

Before Covid-19, H5N1 influenza was the primary candidate for a virus that could cause a pandemic ever since the first cases of human infections were reported in 1997 and then again in 2003.

However, the dreaded jump to humans did not catapult to pandemic proportions as feared. Although the virus killed 30%-50% of the people infected, there was limited spread from one infected person to another.

This is common in viruses that do not naturally infect a human host – when they do enter, they wreak havoc, but then reach a “dead end” because the very traits that make them so dangerous to any human host they enter (usually someone in direct contact with an infected animal) often reduces their ability to spread to another person.

In contrast, bird flu spreads rapidly among birds, and like wildfire in those kept in cramped and confined spaces as is often the case in many large poultry farms.

On top of the millions of birds that have died from the virus, hundreds of millions more have been culled in response to outbreaks.

Particularly from 2021 to last year, numbers of poultry culled due to bird flu more than doubled from 60 million to nearly 140 million.

It is difficult to estimate how many birds in the wild harbour the virus or have died from the virus, but the numbers are likely higher than what is reported. This is because the natural hosts for the virus are waterfowl such as ducks and geese that do not get sickened by it and migrate seasonally, spreading the virus across different bodies of water throughout the year.

Worse still, more species of wild birds are becoming vulnerable to the disease when they were not before.

But it is not just the birds that are now dying or getting culled in the tens of thousands due to bird flu. After the infamous reports of Covid-19 spreading across networks of massive mink farms in 2021, researchers recently reported a large farm culling minks in Spain in October last year, this time owing to a new variant of H5N1.

This came after scientists had already become increasingly concerned over sporadic cases of foxes, raccoons, bobcats and sea lions dying from the virus, suggesting that it had gained the ability to spread among mammals.

While the risk of human-to-human spread of this new variant seems to be of low concern for now, the effects of the virus among birds and mammals, both wild and in captivity, could be catastrophic.

Malaysia has been fortunate to avoid large-scale bird flu outbreaks so far, as the few reported cases have afflicted village chickens that are more likely to have encountered wild birds.

While eggs are domestically produced, layer chickens and poultry meat trade are globally linked, and disruptions in any part of the world will inevitably affect others.

With Malaysians consuming an average of 49.7kg of poultry meat per person in 2021 (among the top 10 in the world), a worsening bird flu problem will continue to affect us too.

Even though avian flu vaccines are available, vaccination alone is not an effective strategy to fully curb the threat, and several challenges persist in implementing successful immunisation programmes.

Vaccination is expensive, high levels of flock immunity are difficult to maintain over time, and it complicates efforts to monitor for outbreaks since vaccinated chickens will also carry antibodies which are typically targeted by tests to detect an actual infection.

Any changes to the virus, which occurs often, may also reduce the protective effect of the vaccine.

While the world continues to grapple with the ever-threatening bird flu without clear solutions, one thing is for sure: our demand for livestock and fur is in urgent need of reevaluation.

I have always found fur to be most appealing when attached to the source animal, and most abhorrent when attached to anything else.

Unless one is an Eskimo who needs protection from temperatures below freezing, giving up fur in apparel and accessories seems like an easy thing for anyone to do.

Finding alternatives to meat and chicken may require more effort, but I believe that there is always enough for everyone’s need and never enough for anyone’s greed or vanity.

We could all benefit from consuming less and consuming more consciously.

Do I need to eat chicken every day? Definitely not. Especially when there are other sources of protein like nuts, whole grains and lentils that pack more nutritional punch while also being more resource-efficient to produce, and less inhumane.

Do I need to inhale a piece of fried chicken when the occasional craving hits? Probably not.

But if it is a chicken that has been humanely raised, perhaps I can indulge once in a while.

What about you? How often do you eat chicken in a week? How much do you need and how much can you give up?

Our individual answers to these questions may collectively become part of a larger solution for our planet’s bird problem.

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