Can vegetarianism prevent bird flu?

Earlier this week, an MD I have long admired sent me an e-mail with the subject line, “I never thought I’d live to see the day.” When I opened his message, I found an excerpt from an editorial about zoonotic diseases in the current issue of the American Journal of Public Health. The thing that most surprised my doctor friend, who is an expert on avian influenza, was that the editorial discussed something you rarely hear in articles or news reports about the spread of bird flu (or mad cow disease or even HIV/AIDS). And it was a point he and others have been making for years. It read, “It is curious...that changing the way humans treat animals—most basically, ceasing to eat them or, at the very least, radically limiting the quantity of them that are eaten—is largely off the radar as a significant preventive measure. Such a change, if sufficiently adopted or imposed, could still reduce the chances of the much-feared influenza epidemic.”

This is big stuff from such a highly respected health journal. Most doctors and public health practitioners have shied away from recommending vegetarianism as a way not only to curb the emergence of animal diseases that can spread to humans, but also for preventing cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and some types of cancers. But the connections between meat and disease are certainly there. Increasingly, evidence suggests that the intensely crowded, extremely filthy factory farms that feed animals a toxic brew of antibiotics, hormones, and high-protein feed (which may also contain the ground-up bits of other animals) are at least partly responsible for some of the zoonoses we read about every day.

But according to the AJPH article, eating less meat would mean that fewer animals would need to be raised in factory farms. It would also mean we would have fewer genetically uniform—and disease susceptible—chickens (and pigs, turkeys, and other animals) closely confined in huge sheds that dot the landscapes of Iowa, Missouri, North Carolina, and other U.S. states, as well as countries like China, Thailand, and Vietnam.

The AJPH author suggests that our continued consumption of animals not only has moral implications, but is also “highly imprudent” when it comes to preventing pandemics. But we do have multiple opportunities for prevention, he notes—including choosing not to eat animals from factory farms. In the end, this may be the best advice a doctor can give.