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Doctor’s Tip: Pandemics — a historical perspective

Dr. Greg Feinsinger
Doctor’s Tip
Greg Feinsinger

Before Dr. Michael Greger became nationally and internationally renowned for his books “How Not to Die” and “How Not to Diet” and his website nutritionfacts.org, he was director of Public Health And Animal Agriculture for The Humane Society of the United States. While in that position he made a video several years ago about the human/animal relationships and pandemics, which he recently sent out on his website due to the current COVID-19 pandemic. Following is synopsis:

Humans evolved over some 25 million years, from tree-dwelling plant-eaters. Late in the course of human evolution people became hunter-gatherers. They didn’t begin farming until about 10,000 years ago, and according to medical anthropologists, there is no evidence that epidemics existed prior to domestication of animals. When Europeans came to North American, they brought their infectious diseases with them. Native Americans — still in the hunter gatherer stage — had no resistance to these diseases. As a result, 95 percent of Native Americans were wiped out by diseases such as measles, diphtheria, and smallpox. Medical anthropologist talk about three stages of human disease:

STAGE 1, DOMESTICATION OF ANIMALS 10,000 YEARS AGO

For the first time, humans and animals started living in close proximity to each other, resulting in spread of many benign (for the animals) viruses to humans. Rinderpest virus in cows and sheep ended up as measles in humans; smallpox came from camel pox; pigs gave humans whooping cough (pertussis); typhoid fever came from chickens; influenza came from ducks; leprosy came from water buffalo; the common cold came from horses.

Factory farming — which occurs in China but also in the United States — fosters the development (through mutations) and spread of viruses dangerous to other animals and to humans.

STAGE 2, THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION IN THE 18TH AND 19TH CENTURY

This resulted in “diseases of civilization,” such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, which continue to be the main killers in the 21st century. By the mid-20th century — with immunizations and antibiotics — it was thought that infectious diseases had been conquered.

STAGE 3, STARTING IN 1975 THE AGE OF EMERGING PLAGUES, ALMOST ALL FROM ANIMALS

During World War II, Argentina started cutting down rain forests for cattle, letting loose a virus that caused hemorrhagic fever in humans across South America.

Cutting down rainforests in Africa so cattle could graze released other human-disease-causing viruses including Lassa Virus, Rift Valley fever virus, and Ebola virus.

A hungry migrant work force often survived on wild meat, and people started dying from these viral diseases — for example Ebola virus spread by people eating great apes; SARS (Sever Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome) spread to humans from wild cats called Civet Cats.

Today, a commercial bush-meat trade exists in parts of Asia, often involving live animals. Furthermore, there is a large, international exotic bird and animal trade that brings with it exotic contagious viruses. In 2003, the exotic animal trade brought monkey pox from the jungles of West Africa to Wisconsin. Bird smuggling brought West Nile virus to the Western Hemisphere.

We can’t blame Africa and Asia for all our infectious disease problems, however. Although changes need to occur in those areas to keep the world safe, people in the West who engage in the exotic bird and animal trade certainly are part of the problem. Furthermore, factory farming — which occurs in China but also in the United States — fosters the development (through mutations) and spread of viruses dangerous to other animals and to humans. In 2020, half of egg-laying hens are kept in small cages in large factory farms with up to 1 million to 2 million hens per farm. And half of pigs in the world are raised in factory farms. In these factory farms, animals can barely move about, and are right next to several other animals. Darkness and poor ventilation also contribute to viral mutations and spread of disease. Furthermore, farm animals — especially those raised on factory farms — are given antibiotics to enhance growth, which encourages the development of “super bacteria,” that are resistant to all antibiotics, resulting in fatal human bacterial disease.

The United Nations is urging countries to discontinue factory farming. Another approach of course would be to decrease the consumption of meat/poultry. This would not only help with the resurgence of pandemics, but would also prevent the “diseases of civilization” mentioned above.

For more about factory farming, watch a documentary called “Food, Inc.”

Greg Feinsinger, M.D. is a retired family physician who has a nonprofit: Prevention and Treatment of Disease Through Nutrition. He gives a free presentation at 7 p.m. the first Monday of the month at the Third Street Center in Carbondale; is available by appointment for free consultations (379-5718); and conducts a shop-with-a-doc session at 10 a.m. the first Saturday of the month at Carbondale City Market.


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