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Global Pandemic the Subject of New Thriller "Contagion"

HSUS’s Dr. Greger explains why intensive confinement of farm animals can pose a public health menace

  • Matt Damon as Mitch Emhoff in the thriller "Contagion," a Warner Bros. Pictures release. ©2011 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

  • Gwyneth Paltrow as Beth Emhoff. ©2011 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

  • Jude Law as Alan Krumwiede. ©2011 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

  • Kate Winslet as Dr. Erin Mears. ©2011 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

  • Laurence Fishburne as Dr. Ellis Cheever. ©2011 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

In the film “Contagion,” now in theaters, a killer virus is spread when (spoiler alert!) an infected bat interacts with a pig, and then humans come in contact with the now infected slaughtered pig. Soon, a global pandemic is born.

In the film, how the virus starts is just a plot point. The real nail-biting action is in the horrifying spread of the disease, and the race for a cure. The villain in the fight to contain the disease is the close quarters in which humans live, work, and travel. Michael Greger, M.D., HSUS director of public health and animal agriculture, says there’s as much potential fact as fiction in the scenario, but his focus is on how, and where, such a virus is likely to be born.

Ironically, according to Dr. Greger, close quarters is also a potential villain in real life. An expert on the human health implications of industrial animal agriculture and author of “Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching" he says factory farms create a ‘perfect storm’ environment for the emergence and spread of new superstrains of influenza. “When we overcrowd thousands of animals into cramped, filthy, football-field sized sheds to lie snout to snout or beak to beak atop their own waste, it’s a breeding ground for disease.”

Learn more about the issues in Take Part: Contagion

He cites six factors that can make intensive confinement farms such a public health menace:

  • Because swine flu, for example, is transmitted just like human flu—via infected nasal secretions and respiratory droplets—the overcrowding on pig farms allows for large infectious doses to be passed back and forth
  • Combined with the sheer numbers of animals in one place, a virus can get thousands of spins on the genetic roulette wheel to acquire rare mutations
  • The stress caused by extreme confinement conditions can cripple animals’ immune systems
  • The dankness from the lack of fresh air, along with the lack of sunlight, can keep pathogens alive longer. The UV rays in sunlight are actually quite effective in destroying the influenza virus. Thirty minutes in direct sunlight completely inactivates the flu virus, but it can last for days in the shade and weeks in moist manure.
  • The ammonia from the decomposing fecal waste can burn animals' respiratory tracts, predisposing them to respiratory infection
  • Long-distance live animal transport can spread animal diseases with the potential to affect humans around the world. Pandemics can happen when pigs fly.

Dr. Greger adds, “Basically, we need to give these animals more breathing room. Studies have shown that measures as simple as providing straw for pigs so they don’t have the immunosuppressive stress of living on bare concrete their whole lives can significantly cut down on swine flu transmission rates. But in the long run, we need to follow the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production's recommendations to abolish extreme confinement practices like gestation crates as they're already doing in Europe, and to follow the advice of the American Public Health Association to call for no more factory farms.”

The HSUS joins a number of health organizations in presenting information relevant to the theme of “Contagion” on TakePart.com/Contagion. It’s a great opportunity, says Dr. Greger. “A high-profile theatrical film like ‘Contagion’ can help us raise awareness about how failing to provide more humane care for animals really can result in a disastrous situation, not just for the animals, but for us all.”

“Contagion” is directed by Academy Award®-winner Steven Soderbergh and features a stellar international ensemble cast including Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Kate Winslett, and Laurence Fishburne.

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