With a bird flu pandemic looming, the rush to find ways to contain the H5N1 virus and to develop treatments and vaccines is on. In more ways than one, animals are paying the price.
To prevent the spread of the disease, infected birds are summarily destroyed. I hate to think about animals being put down for any reason, but gassing, which renders animals unconscious first, appears to be one of the more humane methods. In the event of a true pandemic, however, it’s considered too time-consuming and, particularly on farms housing larger numbers of birds, to require too much manpower.
An unfortunate alternative is suffocation. Though it has stated that suffocation would be used only under exigent circumstances, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the U.K. has passed an amendment to the Welfare of Animals (Slaughter or Killing) Regulations 1995 that would allow the air supply in poultry houses to be cut, causing birds to perish due to “lack of oxygen, overheating and the effects of the disease.” According to Philip Lymbery, chief executive of Compassion in World Farming, “…death through ventilation shutdown is likely to be protracted and cause terrible suffering. We believe that this method is potentially so inhumane that it should not be used even as a last resort.”
On the prevention front, a promising vaccine, developed by Vical Inc., is being tested on mice and ferrets. I find it hard to be happy about a preventive for humans that comes with a price tag of suffering and death for animals, especially when animal testing hasn’t been shown to accurately predict human reactions. And you have to assume that drug manufacturers know this is the case when they say their findings “suggest” efficacy in humans—and that’s when taken in conjunction with the results of other studies.
As a treatment, the antiviral Tamiflu is proving to be effective. Unfortunately, these results are also being borne out in tests on ferrets. And yet the question at the heart of the study—the amount and length of treatment needed should the virus mutate so that it can be transmitted from person to person—remains unanswered.
As far as I’m concerned, the only question that needs answering when it comes to animal testing is: How many animals have to suffer and die so that we don’t?