By Steve Hinchliffe, University of Exeter
“The diversity and geographical distribution of influenza viruses currently circulating in wild ad domestic birds are unprecedented since the advent of modern tools for virus detection and characterization. The world needs to be concerned” (WHO 2015: emphasis added).
Bird flu might be about pathological birds, spreading diseases. Or is it about pathological lives, a sense that our economies and modes of organising life are in themselves causing concern?
This week half a million birds have been culled in Niigata, Japan in order to contain a highly pathogenic avian influenza virus (HPAIV or bird flu). On the Friesian island of Texel in The Netherlands, 500 birds have been killed from a related strain, resulting in the closure of an important nature reserve. Towards the end of 2016, this strain of influenza is busy circulating in 14 countries, affecting wild and domestic birds in Hungary, Germany and France.
In the UK, yet to report any HPAIV infections this year, a 30-day Avian Influenza Prevention Zone has been announced. Farmers and keepers of zoological collections are being encouraged to move birds indoors and to improve biosecurity for ‘housed’ flocks. Biosecurity suggests that housing birds on its own is not enough. Vigilance is needed as HPAIV can also move via staff, boots, equipment, rodents and so on. Meanwhile, and lest anyone should be uncertain about the ‘smoking gun’ in this matter, the Department for Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) announced an enhancement of surveillance of wild birds. As a consortium of scientific experts suggests (2016), viral evolution and geographical spread (phylogeography) strongly supports the proposition that migrating wild birds are spreading the viruses. Wild bird surveillance is regarded as a necessary measure to secure domestic flocks.
Concern here is not only for the livelihoods of farmers, or even the balance sheets of national economies (avian influenzas are notifiable and trade-limiting diseases). Nor is it solely a matter for the welfare of wild and domestic birds (though generally it is the latter who are least equipped in evolutionary terms to live with infection). There are also fears for public health. These avian influenza viruses are only a few mutations away from ‘learning’ how to not only infect people (some of them already do that) but also transmit between people (not something that they have managed to do, yet). They are what are known as PPPs, potential pandemic pathogens. With the swarm of influenzas currently circulating, the chances are that the alphabet and numerical soup of ‘promiscuous’ H5-clades (H5N1, H5N6, H5N8 etc) as well as H7s (H7N9) will reassort or shuffle components. This ‘natural’ process of gene exchange and editing is the main reason that the WHO have cause “to be very concerned”.
What are we to make of this concern, what indeed is to be done about this swirling cloud of viruses and birds? The first point to note is that avian flu has been around for a long time, circulating in wild birds without too much of an issue. So current concern is undoubtedly related to recent developments in “virus detection and characterization” (WHO 2015). But this can’t be the whole story. A second point concerns changing stakes and biologies. The relatively recent explosion in global poultry numbers is both a reason for greater economic concern but also a driver of viral shifts. As inexpensively produced protein-rich diets become a worldwide norm, poultry populations, growth rates and metabolisms have changed accordingly. The result is a new set of conditions for viral selection and evolution. As any epidemiologist will tell you, a microbe can only become deadly or pathogenic if there are the right environmental and host conditions. Bird numbers and altered bodies have, in short, made the planet more ‘infectable’.
In a book just published in the RGS-IBG series, my co-authors and I call this entanglement of microbes, hosts, environments and economies ‘pathological lives’. The term allows us to investigate how these lives have become dangerous to themselves in a world of accelerated throughput and biological intensity. In contrast to the recent global consortium that reviewed the evidence on avian influenzas, we do more than focus on transmission (or the outward movement of a disease agent across space). Rather, we also investigate the conditions for the emergence, persistence and transformation of avian influenzas and other zoonotic diseases, and importantly highlight the changing intensities and enhanced ‘infectability’ of our farming and public health systems.
The result is that instead of biosecurity being a matter for segregating domestic life, ‘closing the hi-tech barn door’ so to speak, a more searching issue arises. We question the sustainability and security of the kinds of intensive protein production that are now, paradoxically, being rolled out across the planet as the solution to the problem that they may in fact have helped to generate. As we demonstrate in Pathological Lives, diseases have complex, multifactorial causes. The traffic of viruses, wild bird assisted or not, can only be regarded as a necessary rather than sufficient cause of a diseased ecology.
About the author: Steve Hinchliffe is Professor or Human Geography at the University of Exeter. His research draws together insights from Science and Technology Studies (STS), particularly actor network theory, and Geography. Steve is author and editor of numerous books and articles on issues ranging from risk and food, to biosecurity, human-nonhuman relations and nature conservation.
Hinchliffe S., Bingham N., Allen J,. Carter S,. 2016 Pathological Lives: Disease, Space and Biopolitics RGS-IBG Book Series. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN: 978-1-118-99760-4
The Global Consortium for H5N8 and Related Influenza Viruses (2016). “Role for migratory wild birds in the global spread of avian influenza H5N8.” Science 354(6309): 213-217.
WHO (2015). Warning signals from the volatile world of influenza viruses. Influenza. Geneva, Switzerland, World Health Organisation.