Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Biological warfare

Sounds scary, doesn't it? At the library today a book was returned titled "The Plague Makers" by Wendy Barnaby. I checked it in, then checked it out to myself immediately because it sounded fascinating. (Am I painting a picture of a complete nerd? I watch "NOVA" in my free time and read books about biological warfare. A little a-typical, I'd guess, for women my age.) Anyway, it wouldn't really have anything to do with this blog except for one part of the third chapter. The author went over many of the organisms that have been weaponized or identified as potential biological weapons. Some of them included plant diseases and viruses, such as the fungus that caused the Irish potato famine. Even this didn't get me really thinking until she talked about the potential for biological warfare on animal agriculture. She mainly focuses on the economic impact that this would have, but the final paragraph of the section states that, in a study, it was found that "farming is increasingly concentrating animals in specific areas, which reduces the target area for a terrorist, increases the potential for the spread of infectious agents and magnifies the impact of limited use." (Page 42 in the third edition.) Now, I haven't gone completely off the deep end here. I'm NOT trying to say that any type of biological attack on our food animals is imminent, or will ever happen, and I'm certainly not going to join those one of those crazy cult, Armageddon, or militia groups. I just found it interesting that factory farming, among its other horrible consequences, is uniquely vulnerable to things like biological warfare. In fact, they've almost created their own form of biological warfare, only it's completely self-directed. By keeping so many animals in such tight, cramped quarters they've made it so that the routine use of antibiotics is a necessary step to ensure that animals live long enough to make it to slaughter. The animals are always sick, and this is leading to wonderful conditions for breeding new kinds of diseases. Sounds yummy, doesn't it? It also means that much of our meat comes to us contaminated with seriously bad diseases like E. coli and botulism. It's estimated that fully half the meat on the market today is carrying some form of potentially deadly disease.
This impacts Alaska more, even, than the rest of the States. Because we're so far away, and agriculture is currently limited, we're uniquely dependent on outside sources of food. It's currently estimated that Alaska has only a four day supply of perishables. Four days. That's really not enough to make me feel secure. If a disease goes through an animal crop, like chickens, and it decimates whole populations of factory animals (it's happened before), we'll be the first to lose out because of the cost to ship such long distances.
I might be a little biased, since I'm against the very idea of CAFOs and big slaughterhouses. I think they're just sick and wrong, so I'm certain I buy my meat in the most environmentally friendly, sustainable, and humane way possible. But I get to give myself an extra pat on the back for supporting a style of animal agriculture that isn't as vulnerable to disease and warfare.
The fact that antibiotics are so prevalent and the over-use of them has caused so much harm was nailed home when I was a teenager. I got really, really sick and after telling my parents for a couple of weeks that I was fine, and would get better, I was finally persuaded to go to the doctor. (Because I couldn't walk up the stairs without needing a wheezing break to try to breathe.) After a blood sample, it turned out that I had both bronchitis and pneumonia. The two often go together, although usually in older people. The doctor further informed me that because of the particular strains I had, there were only two antibiotics that would treat them both. One of them would have cost me over $300 after insurance. I'm not an epidemiologist, but when there are only two options to treat a rather common illness, and one of them is clearly not administered often, that seems to be a problem. Luckily, the cheaper antibiotic worked. But I've thought ever since then about what would have happened if it hadn't worked. And what if the other hadn't worked? I've already stated that I couldn't walk up the stairs because I couldn't get enough oxygen. If it hadn't been treatable, at that point there would have been a high probability of death.
The problem of drug resistance isn't some sci-fi, potential future problem. It's something that's happening now and we need to stop the problem before it gets worse. The crazy part is that it's within everyone's means to help put an end to the over-use of antibiotics. 80% of antibiotic use in this country is for agricultural animals. Simply by eating less meat, and when you do eat meat making sure it comes from animals that haven't been treated with antibiotics. It's that simple.

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