The Year of the Rooster

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Avian flu could kill millions, says Ian Rappel.

According to the World Health Organisation, avian flu (bird flu) threatens to kill 100 million people in a global pandemic comparable to the one that killed millions around the world at the end of the First World War.

Mike Davis starts his book by outlining the biological and ecological characteristics of the influenza virus. The complexities that surround the properties of viral bacteria are discussed with wonderful clarity. Here we learn of viral influenza's origins in wild bird populations, and its tendency in mammals to evolve into different strains each year (antigenic drift). Disturbingly, it has also been established that avian influenza is occasionally able to swap genes with established human strains of the virus, or acquire mutations that allow the virus to jump across the species boundary (antigenic shift), typically between wild and domestic fowls, pigs and humans.

However, the current threat of a devastating avian flu epidemic arises not from these viral properties alone, but from the broader context in which the flu virus is now developing.

Mike Davis examines the social, ecological, economic and political aspects of this context over the remainder of the book, revealing the patterns of an unfolding disaster.

Increased levels of urban and rural poverty in the Third World are providing potentially lethal breeding grounds for avian flu. In rural areas, the ongoing marginalisation of poor farmers has led them to depend increasingly upon subsistence agriculture. Avian flu outbreaks have already killed people across South East Asia.

Simultaneously, vast swathes of the South's rural economy are being restructured into agri-industry operations geared towards the demands of the 'export economy' in line with the requirements of the IMF/World Bank Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs). Under these conditions, avian flu's helping hand comes from the vast densities of livestock being held and processed under factory conditions where environmental and hygiene standards are frequently ignored.

The nightmare scenario where both these conditions occur simultaneously is reality for much of Asia. This will increasingly be the case as international poultry agribusiness continues its penetration of the rural economy - often piggy-backing on the mass livestock culls that have taken place to control outbreaks of avian flu.

In the slums of the South, meanwhile, lack of sanitation and high population density are combining to ensure that any major flu epidemic will rage like wildfire. Indeed, the conditions for a serious outbreak of avian flu are undoubtedly more favourable in the Third World - Mike Davis speculates on the horrific possibility of a serious outbreak in Africa, where avian flu's deadly impact could be magnified by wars, famines and HIV/Aids.

Should anybody feel complacent about the possibility that avian flu will be restricted to the Third World, it is worth remembering that the minor outbreaks that have been recorded to date have seen the disease carried across continents - from China to Canada - by air passengers within a matter of days. Globalisation today can facilitate the spread of avian flu at rates far exceeding that of the 1918 epidemic. As I was reading this book the British government announced a ban on the import of live chickens and feathers from Russia and Kazakhstan, where an outbreak of avian flu has been recorded among poultry.

The breeding grounds of avian flu lie in poverty and industrial agriculture, but our global defence against epidemics has been substantially weakened because many national public healthcare systems have been undermined, if not destroyed, by privatisation and SAPs. Simultaneously, the development, manufacture and control of effective vaccines against avian flu are increasingly subject to the whims of the global pharmaceutical industry (Big Pharma). The manufacture and distribution of flu vaccines are suppressed because of its lack of profitability and a patent system that is skewed towards the interests of the Big Pharma.

The Monster at Our Door is a hugely important book for socialists and activists - a powerful tool against the neo-Malthusian or wrath of god rubbish that may be written in the mainstream media when/if an epidemic develops. Significantly, in the case of Britain, Davis's arguments should be used in our ongoing defence of the NHS against privatisation. They can also strengthen the campaign to reverse the erosion and destruction of public health systems everywhere.

Mike Davis's book doesn't make for comfortable reading, but it illustrates exactly how the potential victims of any avian flu outbreak will in truth be the victims of capitalism. This fact should be broadcast as widely as possible as part of our efforts to overthrow this rotten system.


The Monster at Our Door
Mike Davis
The New Press £12.99