CNN reports that Cambodia is seeing a spike in the number of deaths due to the H5N1 strain of bird flu. In a related case, Mexico recently slaughtered more than 1 million chickens infected with the H7N3 strain of bird flu.
Despite the increase in bird flu in Cambodia, H5N1 is currently not very contagious among humans (most people who contracted the virus were in direct contact with sick farmed animals), and H7N3 is not known to cause harm to humans.
In spite of our current low risk, it is just a matter of time before H5N1, H7N3 or another influenza strain evolves into a dangerous form that results in a pandemic. And the events in Mexico and Cambodia beg the question: Are we ever going to be safe from bird flu?
As long as we continue to treat animals raised for food poorly, the answer is a definite "no."Poultry farms certainly offer wonderful opportunities for avian influenzas: Any monoculture, animal or vegetable, is (to coin a phrase) a sitting duck for some enterprising predator.
But I don't think factory farming is the problem. Indonesia has seen more H5N1 outbreaks, more human cases, and more deaths than anyone else, but they seem to have resulted from H5N1 in backyard and small-village flocks.
Similarly, H5N1 in Vietnam turns up in rural regions, not in modern factory farms. It's just too easy to traipse from one henhouse to another, with all kinds of mud and poop on your sandals. It's also easy to haul your birds to the local wet market, tied to the handle bars of your motorbike.