Art v. Bird Flu

Yesterday, the World Health Organization confirmed the first known human-to-human transmission of avian flu, a disease which some fear could become a pandemic comparable to the deadly Spanish flu of l918-l919. (Although many scientists consider that unlikely: for more, see the stunningly thorough Fluwiki.)

The good news is that this single case of avian flu transmission, from a son to a father in Indonesia, was not duplicated among over fifty others in his family, despite a month’s opportunity, so doctors are confident it doesn’t transmit easily.

But speaking of stunning! Take a look at this extensive story on "the mad scientist as artist" in Salon. (Non-subscribers will have to look at an ad to see the whole story, but it’s worth it.) Natalie Jeremijenko, a former neuroscientist and Australian rock concert promoter, has turned her phenomenal energy, command of technology, and sheer brain power towards using science to open people’s eyes to the natural world.

Birds–wild and robot–and their voices introduce visitors to her exhibit at the Whitney Museum in New York to the idea that healthy populations of wild birds are necessary to stop the spread of the disease. (When wild birds land on a perch, they activate the recorded voices.) Healthy wild birds require healthy wetlands.

Here’s what it sounds like, via Salon’s Kevin Berger:

"Tick, tick, tick. That’s the sound of genetic mutations, of the avian flu becoming a deadly human flu," says a professorial male voice. "Do you know what slows it down? Healthy sub-populations of birds. Increasing biodiversity, generally. It is in your interest that I’m healthy, happy, well fed. Hence, you could share some of your nutritional resources instead of monopolizing them. That is, share your lunch."

Next comes a female voice. "You have such a strange relationship to ownership that holds across species. I’d like to suggest that we share the land and its productive capacity — the worms, the plants, the future generations of seeds, the nesting grounds. Do you think you own this too?" The haughty voice continues. "You know those mute swans now dying all over Europe? They don’t normally migrate," she says. When it comes to bird flu and human deaths, "You’re bringing it on yourselves. But that means you can fix it. The first step is to give me a little bit of that bar."

These are some brainy birds. They’re telling us how the destruction of biological diversity is a crime against nature and increases the risk of disease. Jeremijenko explains that wild birds in Europe and Asia, fleeing ailing wetlands, are forced to roost near scummy ponds on farmlands, where they come in contact with infected chickens.

Yet rather than preserving wild lands, she laments, the international response has been the "mass slaughter of millions of birds," which only fans the flames of the flu.

"The birds are arguing that the reason we have diversity in nature is to protect us against disease," she says. "The birds are arguing that if we were to address the problem effectively, with a systems-level view, we would increase the health of domestic and wild birds, and that would be our best protection." Her birds, she says, also remind us we don’t live in plastic bubbles.

"The greatest vectors of bird flu have been freeways, airports and railways. People get on with infected birds, get off, and trade at stops along the way. It’s human migration that is transmitting this disease, not the migration of wild birds themselves."

Jeremijenko always sounds like an excitable activist. But she does do her homework. A recent report by the United Nations Environment Programme concluded, "Restoring tens of thousands of lost and degraded wetlands could go a long way towards reducing the threat of avian flu pandemics." Ecologists at the University of Georgia, as reported by New Scientist, "have shown that killing wild animals with a disease like flu could actually lead to more infected animals, not fewer."


Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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