Barnoldswick Local History Articles

Thursday, September 30, 2004


Another NOP. 30 September 2004.

A couple of news items got me going this morning. The first was about the first suspected case of human to human transmission of bird flu and the other was about high intensity chicken farming in Thailand.

Tolstoy is reputed to have said ‘History would be a fine thing, if only it were true’. Santayana said that ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’. Tolstoy was being a bit cynical I think, there is good history. I hope Santayana was wrong but am afraid he might not be.

In March 1918 at Camp Funston, Kansas, USA a few men went down with influenza. By the end of 1918 a world-wide epidemic was raging that killed more humans than any previous recorded pandemic. Estimates vary but between 20 and 40 million people died, mostly young people and the frail elderly. As it was wartime, the first place it was freely reported was in Spain and hence it got the name ‘Spanish Flu’. Pravda in Moscow reported that ’The Spanish Lady is in town’ when it reached Moscow.

Even today, the true origins of the mutated virus which caused the pandemic have never been found. The most widely held version is that pigs in Iowa developed a form of Swine Flu, passed on possibly by avian transmission, and for some reason this mutated and jumped the species barrier into humans. Current investigations using sophisticated DNA techniques are being pursued in Alaska where bodies of those who died there may have been preserved in the permafrost.

This is why scientists are getting so exercised today about the possibility that the virus causing ‘Asian Bird Flu’ might have performed the same trick. If it has, the genie is out of the bottle and they are urging immediate action to start bulk manufacture and stock-piling of a vaccine that already exists and might be useful. I don’t think anyone needs to underline the speed at which such infections can travel by air travel.

So what has this got to do with the poultry farmer in Thailand? I was listening to Farming Today on R4 and there was a report about a widely used practice on poultry farms in that part of the world. Chickens reared for slaughter are kept in wooden cages in the open air built above fish farming tanks. The idea is that any waste food or faeces drops into the fish tanks and feeds the fish. A very efficient way of maximising the nutritional content of the waste from chicken rearing. ( I can remember forty years ago that dry deep litter from broiler houses was used as an additive in cattle food because of its high protein content) As the cages are in the open air they are vulnerable to avian transmission of the virus and this seems to be a possible precursor to mutation.

So you can see why the two items worried me. By the way, if you are feeling safe because you aren’t going to Thailand or Vietnam, forget it. One of the chief sources of cheap chicken cuts for the fast food market is SE Asia. Further, as many of these farmers are at the subsistence level they cannot afford pesticides and fertilizers and so are prime candidates for their produce to be described as ‘Organic’. I have an idea that these countries are looking into this already, getting registered as organic producers. So, no protection there.

I only know one way of getting protection and that is to buy your chicken from a butcher who can prove to you where they were reared. It will be more expensive but could be worth it.

As for the Bird Flu, all we can do is pray that someone will waken up very quickly. The odds are that it will happen sooner or later. True, it may not be as virulent as the 1918 virus but the death levels so far suggest that it is a nasty strain. I had Asian Flu in 1958 and am hoping that I may still have some useful antibodies….

By the way, while you were asleep last night an asteroid 3 miles across missed earth by about 1,000,000 miles, a very close shave in cosmological terms. If it had hit us we wouldn’t be here now……