Thursday, August 2, 2007

Assorted Weird Diseases Part II—The Dumb Things We Do

Some people believe that the dinosaurs, proud inhabitants of this earth for 165 million years, were finally driven to extinction not by meteorites or floods, but by the spread of some contagious disease. A tiny bacterium and his buddies bringing down the mighty T-Rex? Well, I don't know if that happened or not. But I would give you odds that when the human race finally hangs up its Reeboks it won't be because of nuclear weapons, global warming, or even Jerry Springer. No, the biggest threats to our species, by far, are all microscopic.

Of course, biological threats have been around forever, and will always be with us. The real question is how we are managing them. Unfortunately, not very well. And in that respect, nothing is speeding the journey to our eventual rendezvous with microorgasmic disaster faster than our animal agriculture and animal research practices. Just look at some of the dumb things we do:

  • We raise billions of farm animals under conditions of horrible confinement and stress, to make sure that diseases spread as easily and rapidly as possible. (Remember how sick you got last winter when you were on the elevator with that guy who had TB? Same thing.)
  • We use huge quantities of antibiotics to promote growth in farm animals, creating a perfect environment for the development of antibiotic-resistant organisms. (Roughly half of the 25,000 tons of antibiotics produced in the United States each year are used on farm animals.)
  • We take new antibiotics that are in development and use them on farm animals, to make sure that antibiotic resistance keeps up with antibiotic development. (Example: Since July of this year every intensively-raised chicken in the UK has been fed an antibiotic growth promoter that is cross-resistant to a new, vitally-important medical drug on trial in British hospitals.)
  • We do medical research on animals, creating the perfect opportunity for cross-species transmission of disease. (Example: The vast majority, if not all, of our existing lines of stem cells were cultured with mouse cells. This will present a real problem if they are ever used in human treatment.)
  • We intentionally feed diseased animals to other animals…
  • …and to ourselves! (The next time you're at a fancy cocktail party remember that "Foie gras" is liver from geese with the painful disease hepatic lipidosis.)
  • We have slaughterhouse and food inspection procedures that we know will allow a certain number of diseased and contaminated animals to pass into the food supply, because it's just too expensive to test every carcass.
  • We blindly accept the fact that millions of people get food poisoning from eating meat (and other foods contaminated by meat) every year. (My meat-eating friends are getting sick all the time.)
  • We transplant animal organs into humans ("xenotransplantation"), creating the risk that we might contract diseases from these animals in the process. (When asked if this could cause an outbreak of new infectious disease, Phil Nogouchi, M.D., a pathologist and director of the FDA's division of cellular and gene therapies said frankly, "We don't know.")
  • We create genetically modified organisms using viruses and bacteria (precisely because they have the ability to break down barriers between species), and introduce these organisms into the environment.
  • And if all of this isn't enough, last summer some Bozo stole three research pigs from a lab at the University of Florida and had them ground into sausage for human consumption. (Mmmmm… doesn't that sound tasty?!)


    Of course the dumbness doesn't stop there. We see it around us all the time. On the evening news the other day I saw a doctor interviewed about Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, and the possibility of contracting it from eating cows infected with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy ("Mad Cow" disease). The doctor agreed that this is a serious problem that we should all be worried about. There was a somber moment in the studio, until the commentator asked: "Doctor, do you eat beef?"

    "Oh yes!" the doctor answered, and there were smiles all around. I guess as long as a doctor is still eating meat nobody has to be worried about anything, much less think for him/herself.

    Speaking of mad cows and humans, a recent article that appeared on WebMD downplayed the risks of Mad Cow disease in the United States, citing the effectiveness of the FDA's feed separation rule to prevent the spread of the disease by banning the feeding of cows to cows. (It is widely believed that cows become infected through eating feed containing infected bone meal.) The article noted with approval the FDA's finding that "about 90%" of the animal rendering plants inspected are in compliance with the rule.

    Hmmm…. Doesn't that mean that "about 10%" of the inspected plants are out of compliance? Isn't that a problem?

    In September Japan reported its first case of Mad Cow disease. By the time it was discovered, the cow in question, a five-year-old Holstein milk cow (name apparently withheld pending notification of kin), had already been "processed" into the week's batch of meat and bone meal. ("Hey guys, this cow we're grinding up looks kind of funny. Why don't we test her for Mad Cow disease?" "Good idea, Yokomo. Let's eat some hamburgers while we're waiting for the test results.")

    Humans have been around, in one form or another, for only a few million years. It's looking like we'll be extinct long before we reach the longevity of the dinosaurs.

    They had walnut-sized brains. We aren't that smart.

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