[OUTLOOK]No need to panic over bird flu

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[OUTLOOK]No need to panic over bird flu

Following on the heels of swine fever, an outbreak of avian influenza has swept through our poultry farms, making many people hesitant to put chicken on their dining tables.
Now, even beef imported from the United States, which we had all believed was safe, is not free from mad cow disease. No matter how hard we search, it seems that there is nothing safe left to eat.
Along with laments about the country’s food hygiene environment, there are cries of resentment against the health officials who have failed to stop the outbreak of the bird flu.
Avian influenza has always been around in nature, just as contagious influenza has always affected humans. It is just that a virulent mutation of the bird flu virus has struck this year. Two things must be noted about the situation.
The first is the lack of interest that we have had in our livestock farms, including chicken and duck farms, until now. Most of the chicken and duck farms are small family businesses. Most typically raise their chickens in small, crowded spaces for the sake of productivity.
Moreover, many maintain poor hygiene, unable to afford adequate facilities to remove the birds’ waste or provide clean drinking water to the animals. In short, it is difficult for these small farms to afford scientific and modern management.
Despite the obvious fact that highly contagious diseases such as avian influenza should be reported to the authorities as soon as possible so they can take the necessary measures to prevent the illnesses from spreading further, the poultry farms failed to do so.
The second is the reaction that the public has shown. As soon as news of the bird flu came out, the demand for chicken fell even further, hitting the already hard-hit poultry farms. Yet, how many people have had the bad luck of dying of bird flu? At the same time, thousands of people die in car accidents.
The same people who would eat terribly unhygienic snake meat and bear gall bladder because it is good for their “health” won’t eat chicken and duck meat even when it’s perfectly safe to do so, provided the meat is well cooked.
There is very little possibility that humans will be infected by this outbreak of avian influenza.
It has been reported that the virus shown in the birds could indeed generate a new form of influenza in humans through certain genetic exchanges, but this is a very rare case. The bird flu virus, which is fatal to the birds, does not seriously affect humans, while viruses that could be fatal to humans do not infect birds.
We must understand that this outbreak of avian influenza will only affect the birds, and that in a way it represents nature’s law of making sure that only the strong survive.
Just as human influenza can at times spread around the world in a short period of time, it is in some ways “natural” that bird flu can penetrate past preventive measures devised by humans and spread around the country.
Unfortunately, the media are not helping to assuage the fear on the part of the public, which has little knowledge about these matters.
The media, which should be reporting objectively on the situation and the solution, only seem to be making the public more nervous with their coverage of the grisly scenes at the bird farms. One would think they were reporting from a battleground.
The authorities also need to remain a little more relaxed. The sight of the agricultural minister on television eating duck meat to show that it’s safe only makes the situation look more miserable.
The public would only feel a sense of repulsion at such staged efforts by the authorities and that will do nothing to help the situation.
What must be done to prevent this from happening again? We must take a greater interest in and provide better systems for breeding farms. If we don’t modernize the management of these farms, there is no guaranteeing that a second and third outbreak of avian influenza won’t happen.
We also need to establish a system for the farm owners to be educated in recognizing, dealing with and notifying the authorities promptly when such crises as the avian influenza first break out.
Offering rewards for those who notify the authorities early could be a possible way to encourage the farmers to overcome their fear that acknowledging an outbreak would damage their business.
What we need to be doing right now instead of blaming the poor overworked health officials is to encourage them to do their best while remaining humble before nature.
Even in Europe, where high-level epidemic control systems are maintained, contagious diseases such as mad cow disease occur and are spread. This shows us the limits of our science and knowledge in the face of nature.
It is believed that one of the biggest causes of mad cow disease was the feeding of shreds of meat such as sheep intestines to cows bred for beef. In short, we humans brought the disease upon ourselves as the consequence of our greed in pursuit of productivity.
We must discard the foolish notion that just because we know about one or two microorganisms, or because we can modify one or two genes, we can control nature.
We need to constantly maintain a humble attitude in co-existing with nature, restraining our human greed from an ecological point of view. If we continue to treat nature with the greed and arrogance that we have shown so far, nature will strike back with even more wretched and fatal weapons.

* The writer is professor of veterinary medicine at Seoul National University. Translation by JoongAng Daily staff.

by Woo Hee-jong
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