OpEd | CAFOs — the ideal disease incubators


It has long been known that animals and humans readily trade disease by “species jumping” in a process called zoonosis. Zoonotic diseases are caused by harmful germs like viruses, bacteria, parasites and fungi. Zoonotic diseases are very common, both in the United States and around the world. The CDC states that more than 6 out of every 10 infectious diseases in people can be spread by animals, and 3 out of every 4 new or emerging infectious diseases in people come from animals.

The 2009 H1N1 pandemic strain of influenza, also called swine flu, was the result of a reassortment of human, avian and swine influenza virus strains. Since the 1970s novel viruses such as Ebola, Marburg, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Hendra, H1N1, and Niaph all appeared in countries where there is close association between humans and animals.

Hundreds of different coronaviruses exist in the family of viruses known to cause disease. Currently, there are four coronavirus types that have been recognized to cause the common cold in humans, and two recent coronavirus types, SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV, that cause deadly human infections. Most coronaviruses spread between animals such as bats, swine, camels and cats. However, a “spillover” can occur when the virus mutates and jumps species to infect humans.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus is the third animal to human spillover of coronavirus to appear over the past 20 years. This virus causes the current COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2017, a spillover event of novel coronavirus killed 24,000 swine on four large livestock facilities in China. The virus originated from the same species of horseshoe bats connected with the deadly severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus outbreak (SARS-CoV) of 2002 that infected 29 countries. This deadly new swine coronavirus was named swine acute diarrhea syndrome coronavirus (SADS-CoV) and currently does not yet infect humans. However, researchers at the National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control viewed these new findings as a clarion call for extensive monitoring to identify emerging viruses in animals to assess their capacity to infect humans. Alarmingly, a recent study found that since 2003, 78.43% of domestic swine and 49.01% of poultry in “high-risk” livestock areas around the globe lacked proper monitoring for emerging disease. The study called for an expansion of worldwide surveillance in both domestic poultry and swine to track new cross species transmission of viruses.

Researchers are also calling for proper training of livestock owners and workers in order to identify and prevent a pandemic of emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) in live animal markets and on confined animal feeding operations, CAFOs.

Are we doing all we can in the United States to accomplish this? Astonishingly, the U.S. government fails to have an accurate accounting of the number of these facilities, their locations and types of animals.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency attempted to document all of the nation’s CAFOs but was stopped cold by agribusiness industry groups that sued, claiming an invasion of privacy. A 2019 report released by the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) found extensive omissions in collected data, size, type and location of CAFOs in the United States. Only 7,595 CAFOs were documented to exist in 40 states. That leaves more than half of the 17,000-plus CAFOs the EPA estimated to exist in 2012 unaccounted for in the agency’s own data. The NRDC report also suggests that the EPA may have significantly underestimated the number of CAFOs in the United States, contending that the true number of undocumented operations is even higher.

For years there have been global warnings that the widespread use of antibiotics in animal agriculture can promote drug resistant pathogens dangerous to both animals and public health. Research has found drug-resistant pathogens migrating off of CAFOs onto their employees, into the surrounding soil, water, air, nearby residences and even into our meat supply.

A 2019 Washington University study concluded that a recent 2019 CDC report underestimates the true human toll from multi drug-resistant infections. The Washington study estimated there are approximately 162,000 deaths annually — more than twice the mortalities of opioid and other drug overdoses. It ranked drug-resistant infections as the fourth-leading cause of human mortalities in the country.

Still, livestock antibiotic use shot up in 2018 after it decreased in 2017 when antibiotic use was reduced in chicken production. Swine and cattle sectors continue to consume 81 percent of all medically important antibiotics used in livestock in the United States. Today, brand new statistics show that up to one in seven of COVID-19 patients acquire secondary bacterial infections and that as many as 50% actually die from these secondary infections. The epidemic of antibiotic resistance and the loss of effective antibiotics has become even more apparent as the world battles a global pandemic.

Finally, in the midst of the current COVID-19 pandemic, China has issued a call encouraging the construction of more CAFOs overseas to increase its pork imports after almost half of Chinese swine herds were decimated by African swine fever. New CAFOs continue to be permitted and built across the U.S.

How can the United States remain vigilant of emerging zoonoses without an accurate inventory of these business operations even as more are constructed each day? Federal and state governments in the United States have failed in the monitoring and tracking of an existing industry that is expanding and operating without enforceable safeguards. This has resulted in a brewing public health disaster that should be corrected to protect the health of Americans, as well as populations around the globe. Now it is more important than ever for an accounting of CAFOs — the ideal disease incubators.

Karen Hudson is regional representative with Socially Responsible Animal Project, a national organization based in Oregon.

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