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All the News is About COVID-19, But There are Livestock Pandemics Raging Right Now, and It Can Only Make Things Worse.
Up until a few months ago, many people were unfamiliar with the word “pandemic.” That’s all changed as COVID-19 has literally stopped the world in its tracks. But epidemics and pandemics are nothing new and have been around for millennia.
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The Black Death, The Plague of Justinian, The Bubonic Plague, Ebola, Dengue Fever, SARS, and MERS. It’s happened before and will happen again. But there’s one category of disease that we don’t hear about as much.
The Growing Threat of Livestock Pandemics
The reason livestock pandemics seem to live in the background of any newsfeed has to do with one fundamental question: Has it or can it spread to humans? Once we determine the answer is “no” we seem to pay less attention, not only individuals but whole industries and governments.
Unfortunately, past livestock pandemics hold a chilling lesson.
The United Kingdom: 2001
There is a disease that afflicts cattle and pigs referred to as foot-and-mouth disease. It doesn’t sound serious, but it is. Foot-and-mouth disease is transmitted by a virus and is highly contagious among hooved animals. It causes painful lesions on their hooves and mouths.
In 2001, the U.K. experienced an outbreak that soon grew to become an epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease throughout herds of cattle across the country. No humans contracted the disease, but it devastated the U.K.’s livestock industry. Within 24 hours of the first case being reported, both the European Commission and the United States halted all trade in meat, milk, or live animals.
With no vaccines to inoculate the healthy animals, culling herds was the only option to contain the disease. Culling herds means the wholesale slaughter of every animal, and the carcasses are usually buried or burned.
The U.K. Meat and Livestock Commission estimated that more than 10 million animals were destroyed to contain the outbreak. The loss to the U.K. economy was in the billions and beef prices soared by a factor of 10. It took the country’s livestock industry years to recover.
But That’s Only the Tip of the Iceberg
The International Office for Epizootics (OIE) has classified animal diseases into two lists. List “A” and List “B.” These two lists are used to determine the severity of a livestock disease in terms of international trade. The most serious diseases are classified under List A, which is defined by the OIE this way:
“Transmissible diseases which have the potential for very serious and rapid spread, irrespective of national borders, which are of serious socio-economic or public health consequence and which are of major importance in the international trade of animals and animal products.”
List A diseases are:
- Foot-and-mouth disease
- Swine vesicular disease
- Peste des petits ruminants
- Lumpy skin disease
- African horse sickness
- Classical swine fever
- Newcastle disease
- Vesicular stomatitis
- Contagious bovine pleuropneumonia
- Rift Valley fever
- Sheep pox and goat pox
- African swine fever
- Highly pathogenic avian influenza
Of lesser importance are the LIST B diseases. OIE defines them this way:
“Transmissible diseases which are considered to be of socio-economic and/or public health importance within countries and which can be significant in the international trade of animals and animal products.”
This group includes:
- New and Old-World Screwworm
- And many others
Some of the diseases like rabies sound familiar. Others you may not have heard of. What’s curious is that all are common. What’s significant about both lists is that all of the diseases described are also “endemic.” Endemic means the disease is always present in a certain region or area and that at any given point in time, any animal is potentially infected.
The only way they are contained or mitigated is through vaccines, accurate diagnosis, and quick action to cull animals at the outset of the outbreak. Failure to do so leads to a nationwide epidemic, or if it spreads to other countries, a pandemic.
A Catalyst for a Livestock and Human Pandemics: Population Density
According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), The global human population is expected to increase from approximately 6.5 billion in 2008 to approximately 9.2 billion by 2050 with around one billion of this increase occurring in Africa.
Population growth on such a scale poses enormous challenges for food production in general as demand for food is expected to increase by 50% by 2030, especially in developing countries where material increases in household incomes and accompanying urbanization drives demand for meat and dairy products.
But it’s not just about human population. According to the same study, the world cattle population is estimated at about 1.3 billion head, with 30% in Asia, 20% in South America, 15% in Africa, 14% in North/Central America, and 10% in Europe.
Estimates of the global number of smaller livestock vary considerably from source to source, but it is generally accepted that there are approximately one billion pigs, two billion ruminants (sheep, antelope, deer, etc.), and more than 50 billion poultry reared annually for food production.
Overcrowding as a Factor
Whether it’s a human or animal population, when people or livestock are crowded together in close quarters, the ability of bacteria or viruses to spread increases. This happens in two ways that have historically led to livestock epidemics and pandemics.
Third World Animal Husbandry
In many countries plagued by poverty, both farm animals and families share much of the same area as living space. There are no vaccines used to mitigate livestock diseases, no way to accurately diagnose a disease, and when an animal unexpectedly dies, it is often consumed.
The result is the quick spread of any disease, sometimes to other farm animals and sometimes to people as well. If the disease is identified and the local government steps in, the result is usually the culling of all animals on the farm, further plunging families into poverty.
At the other end of the farming spectrum are highly organized sectors of the pork and poultry industries. Poultry reared in densities of up to 50,000 birds in a single shed give the most efficient feed-to-meat conversions of any farm system and provide cheap food for consumers.
Agri-business usually monitors their livestock and often uses vaccines (to a fault) to prevent disease. But even then, the endemic nature of livestock diseases eventually re-emerges as a mutated form or crosses over to animals that had not previously fallen victim to the disease.
Some outbreaks and epidemics affecting poultry stocks have resulted in the destruction of entire national flocks.
And We Just Don’t Pay Attention
Less is known about infectious agents of wildlife, livestock and even companion animals like dogs and cats than of humans, and there are several examples where animal viruses (SARS, coronavirus, hantaviruses, Ebola and Marburg viruses, Nipah virus, Hendra virus, and HIV) that were completely unknown until they leapt to humans. COVID-19 is one of them.
A Lingering Problem
One of the complicating factors affected by livestock viruses is the simple fact that many animals don’t die from the disease and never actually recover. Salmonella is a classic example. According to NIH,
“The bacterium Salmonella enterica may develop a carrier state in the host after primary challenge and such carriers typically excrete high levels of bacteria during recovery from enteric or systemic disease, often in the absence of clinical signs. In some cases, the carrier state may exist for the lifetime of the host.”
In other words, the animal shows no apparent symptoms but is still carrying the disease and is still infectious for the life of the animal.
It Doesn’t End There
Most transmission of contemporary diseases in a human population occur while individuals are alive but infected. Many livestock diseases persist after the animal is slaughtered.
A recent example was the outbreak of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, better known as “mad cow disease.” The first cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) were detected in animals in the U.K. in 1986. In 1996, a new variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) was identified in humans and was related to the BSE epidemic in cattle. The transmission of the disease to humans occurred by consuming contaminated meat.
This is the reason entire national flocks are destroyed when a livestock disease reaches epidemic or pandemic proportions. Not all livestock diseases are transmissible if consumed, but few countries take the chance and massive culling is the result.
According to The UN Food and Agriculture Organization, 70% of the new diseases that have emerged in human beings in recent decades are of animal origin.
COVID-19 is one of them and is now believed to have emerged in a wet-market in China from an animal known as a Pangolin. But even in instances when a disease does not spread from animals to humans, the impact of a livestock pandemic can have a significant effect on human health and well-being.
An outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in South Korea resulted in the destruction of all pigs in the country, leaving the country with a $2.7 billion dollar loss in GDP from 2010 to 2011.
According to a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the United States is woefully unprepared to contain an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease among the nation’s livestock. The report cites an insufficient supply of foot-and-mouth disease vaccines.
The last time there was an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the U.S. was in 1929. According to the USDA, it was contained, but just barely and could have further fueled the Great Depression.
That’s why today’s situation is so precarious. According to the same report, “the current vaccine supply would be sufficient to protect about 14 percent of Texas’s cattle or about 4 percent of Iowa’s swine.” This vaccine shortage would render the U.S. Department of Agriculture unable to quickly contain an outbreak.
That could cost the U.S. agriculture economy billions of dollars. That’s the last thing we need in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and the current state of the U.S. economy.
According to Jim Monroe, a spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council, “Speaking for pork, we’d immediately lose our export market which would be catastrophic. It would be devastating for the world economy.”
You can see it today at any grocery store. The cost of meat has risen significantly and it’s not because COVID-19 has infected livestock, but because it has infected meat processing workers. If a disease like COVID-19 had also infected animals, the effect on prices would be significantly higher and availability significantly limited.
As for those impoverished farm families in countries around the world, the potential for a livestock pandemic could lead from poverty to famine as a distinct possibility.
Livestock Pandemics Will Most Likely Increase
The math is simple. As the population of humans and livestock increases, and as the overcrowding of people into cities or livestock into high-density pens continues, so does the potential for communicable disease. So much for social distancing.
Vaccines are continually touted as the answer, but as more people and livestock are vaccinated, the more likely it is that vaccine-resistant strains of any bacterium or virus will mutate into forms that are equally as devastating and potentially incurable.
COVID-19 is having a devastating effect on people and world economies. If a disease like COVID-19 were to cross over to livestock, or some other disease like foot-and-mouth disease re-emerges, the economic impacts would be devastating and only add to the crisis.
For now, that hasn’t happened leaving us with maybe our only solace… it could be worse.
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