Is our national habit of eating dead animals dragging us closer and closer to a flu pandemic that could kill tens of millions of Americans? Dr. Michael Greger believes so.
He's the author of the new book, Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching, and he recently came on our show, The Big Picture, to ring the alarm bell.
"Up to sixty million Americans get the flu every year," he said before asking, "What if it turned deadly?"
The question wasn't exactly rhetorical.
We do know that the flu is already deadly. Hundreds, sometime thousands, of Americans do die every year from the regular seasonal flu, which according to the Center for Disease Control has a mortality rate of about two-tenths of one percent.
A particularly severe and infectious form of influenza struck the world in 1918 infecting a third of the global population and killing as many as 100 million people. In the United States, that flu took the lives of more than a half-million Americans. Unlike the average seasonal flu that we're confronting today with a mortality rate of .2%, the 1918 strand of influenza had a mortality rate of 2.5%. It was the worst plague in history.
But what if a strand of influenza swept across the nation that was twenty-five times deadlier than the 1918 strand? What if we were dealing with a flu pandemic that had a 60% mortality rate?
Here's the frightening news: We already are.
An extremely deadly and contagious form of bird flu, H5N1, has already infected people in several countries including densely populated China and Indonesia, as well as Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, among others.
Just in 2012, known cases of H5N1 bird flu in Cambodia killed 90% of those infected. In China, 65% died. In Indonesia, the mortality rate was 83%. And in Laos and Nigeria, the mortality rate was 100% - every single person who got it, died.
If the 60 million Americans who get the flu every year suddenly got this particular strand of the flu, H5N1, then upwards of 40 million Americans would die. It would be a disaster on a scale never before seen in this nation other than, possibly, how Europeans wiped out Native Americans when they first brought the flu from Europe. And if it spread around the rest of the world, it would make the Black Plague of the 14th century look like the common cold.
Dr. Greger warned: "It's like crossing one of the deadliest known human diseases, Ebola, with one of the most contagious known diseases, influenza." He added that the single factor that was most likely to cause this is factory farming.
We should be doing everything we possibly can to defend against this apocalyptic pandemic. Yet, each day we as a nation continue factory farming, we're tempting fate.
That's because the only thing stopping the H5N1 influenza from killing billions around the planet is the H5N1 flu itself. Only about 600 people have been infected so far by this flu, simply because it hasn't yet mutated to a form that can more easily infect humans.
As Dr. Greger said, "Right now, H5N1 is good at infecting the viral receptors that coat the trachea or windpipe of birds. It needs to mutate to better attach to human receptors." He continued, "But there's evidence that there is a strand in Indonesia and Egypt acquiring those mutations."
Jamming birds together in factory farming slaughterhouses, beak to beak, and pumping them up with antibiotics promotes these mutations. Now that local small, family farms and local-supermarket butchers have been replaced by giant transnational slaughterhouses, we've seen a radical and rapid increase in mutant strains of the flu, along with other diseases that come from factory farms like the newly-mutated and now deadly forms of E. Coli and Salmonella.
"We've domesticated bird for thousands of years," Dr. Greger noted. "It's really just been in the last few years where we've seen this unprecedented emergence of these highly pathogenic strains, which have killed hundreds of billions of birds."
Factory farms, according to Dr. Greger, are the, "perfect storm environments for the emergence and spread of these super-strains of influenza."
Other consequences of factory farming are well known. Our national diet now has more meat it in it than ever before, thus accelerating heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and other illnesses that are responsible for increasing healthcare costs.
Factory farms requires enormous food and water. And, according to a report by the World Bank Group's International Finance Corporation, 51% of all greenhouse gas emissions are the direct or indirect result of giant factory farms raising cattle, pigs, and poultry.
In other words, factory farming is hurtling our planet toward catastrophic climate change.
But so far, these reasons haven't been strong enough to really motivate us to change. Americans and policymakers haven't been ready to move away from the factory farm model to bring back local farming and reform our diet by eating fewer dead animals.
But, if nothing else, the fear of a worldwide pandemic that kills more than half the human race should motivate us to change how we farm and how we eat.
Let's hope. Because whatever joy we as a nation get out of eating chicken wings will be far outweighed by the catastrophe of watching millions of our fellow humans die.
To save the human race, we need to end factory farming now.