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Day 158 (#2): ‘Our’ Birds—A Scary Drama

I’ll post this bonus entry and then I’ll sleep.

I was restless after I wrote, wanted to walk, breathe, ride. I stuffed my curfew permit, a water bottle, and a couple of masks into a backpack, biked north in darkness. There were more people circulating than I’d expected. Everyone moved silently—walking without conversation, driving without music. Traffic is scarce, with few cops. No one asked for my papers.

GORGEOUS, HELPFUL, INSPIRING ('TO THE LIGHTHOUSE,' Kieran McGonnell)I made it to Central Park not long before sunup, tried to pause on a ghostly Fifth Avenue to await the light. The park looked as it always does at night—forbidding. Impatient, I entered it to ride north on the East drive toward the Ramble, reckoning that the people who go there at night were finished.

Once there, a gorgeous faint light lured me into the woods, empty but for some early birds and a few squirrels posing like prairie dogs. It was exciting to see life stirring afresh, independent of man, in the world’s capital city.

Lisa would have cherished seeing the cardinal that gently and persistently chased the blue jay from tree to tree. I couldn’t figure out which of them was what gender, or why the red bird was so intent on being with the blue one. They looked like forbidden wannabe lovers who’d come to the Ramble to try their luck.

I went to the promontory I like at the lake. Ducks and geese floated around preening, oblivious to the terror they inspire in the planet’s top dogs.

In his book, Dr. Michael Greger says that ducks catch waterborne flu for a few days when young. They don’t fall ill, merely shed billions of doses of a digestive virus that gives people pinkeye at worst.

Then the innocuous duck flu drifts into our stinking chicken factories, where the virus must move up from the stomach to the respiratory tract to replicate among poultry. Once airborne, it can infect humans.

A gram of ordinary chicken dung contains enough viral particles to infect a million birds. China harbors huge multispecies farms in which chickens defecate onto pigs that eat the poultry dung and then void their own into waters that sustain commercial fish. When healthy, migrating ducks drop in for a drink and a bath, they can pick up enhanced virus and fly it to distant chicken factories—if shipments of infected poultry don’t bring it first.

Thus can a mild disorder mutate into a versatile plague that infects pigs and chickens—and you-know-who.

We’re not just talking exotic locales. In 2011 kids in Indiana and Pennsylvania contracted cases of H3N2 influenza that had been circulating only in swine—until that strain picked up a gene from the pandemic 2009 swine flu virus that had affected people.

A Man-Bird-Pig Virus in Missouri

In 2006, a variation of 1957’s H2N2 pandemic strain (to which people born after 1968 have no immunity) turned up at separate pig farms in Missouri. This H2N3 subtype contained genetic material from a swine virus, a human virus, and at least three different avian viruses. (Raccoons can serve as influenza mixing bowls, too.)

That was three years before everyone was shocked, shocked that an H1N1 subtype with genes from swine, human, and avian viruses broke out in North America and became infamous as swine flu. In the midst of that pandemic, Mike Coston blogged about an article from a veterinary news site that detailed how the pork industry was resisting testing for influenza because it didn’t want to lose money on infected herds.

Coston's post came just two months after pork, chicken, and beef producers told the government they opposed any effort to stop them from using antibiotics to grow their animals faster. The freewheeling use of antibiotics in factory farms is spreading MRSA, as problems in the Netherlands have made clear. (Read this New York Times column about an Indiana county with lots of hog farms and loads of MRSA; it was published six weeks before the 2009 swine flu pandemic was detected.)

'KING OF FEAR' (Alfred Hitchcock by Frank Zirbel)

Nothing changes. No one remembers anything. We just get sicker.

But our viral vulnerability is greater and deeper than that sparked by greed for cheap food and dirty profits.

As Frank Ryan posits in Virus X: Tracking the New Killer Plagues, we are squeezing natural life out of the planet. Every road we cut into virgin rain forest seems to trigger some kind of unusual outbreak. Each creature going extinct seems to harbor a virus that needs to leap fast to another species. In killing off our primate cousins, we wind up with mysterious maladies like HIV.

As the dominant global species asserts its primacy over air, land, and water, perhaps it’s only fair that we acquire all the diseases. They migrate to the strongest carrier: us.

We charge in and wreck these viruses’ habitats, killing the hosts with whom they coexist and forcing them to adapt or die. It’s as if we barged into a cave full of armed psychopaths and chased them into the Mall of America to seek new victims.

Pandemics are natural, and the conditions that foster them are spreading just as fast as we are.

So I sat in the morning sun, sucking up Vitamin D, listening to birds warble. My face and hands were naked, my mask and gloves and goggles arrayed on a rock. Some squawking crows reminded me of a rainy autumn night years ago, when I watched The Birds screen in a park behind the New York Public Library.

By then I was tracking H5N1’s evolution. I marveled that Alfred Hitchcock had captured nature’s fury long before it became clear that we could actually kill off the world’s birds. Wetlands International said in 2007 that there were only half as many wild waterfowl as there had been five years earlier. Half of U.S. songbirds are thought to have vanished over the past 40 years—a growing problem because of summer habitat destruction in the north and the use of banned pesticides in the southern climes where they winter.

When the eradication of wild birds leaves us to the mercies of mosquitoes, will we feign surprise? I can taste the outrage—the bile of hypocrisy—as the public seeks culprits.

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