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Eating our way to the next pandemic

The Texas Department of State Health Services reported the first case of H5N1 avian influenza in a human who contracted the virus not from a bird but from an infected dairy cow. The next pandemic could be around the corner, and the food we choose to purchase (or not to purchase) is playing a role in its development.

As we saw with the COVID-19 pandemic, viruses can undergo mutations rapidly, some of which increase the transmissibility or severity of the disease. Though this first H5N1 case appears mild from the information available, the virus may be a few mutations away from causing the next deadly pandemic.

Public health prevention recommendations from the DSHS focus on regularly washing hands, cough hygiene, staying home when sick, avoiding dead birds, and not consuming unpasteurized milk, as the virus may be transmitted through the ingestion of raw milk. However, we need to be more proactive in our approach to the possibility of another pandemic.

As a doctor who worked on the frontlines, intubating people, seeing the light disappear from their eyes, counseling the grieving families who lost loved ones, and seeing the long-term impact of this disease, it is with great urgency that I believe we should treat the possibility of a new pandemic. Shifting to a plant-based diet could be the key to reducing our personal risk of becoming infected with an infectious disease like H5N1, as well as how we can prevent zoonotic diseases from occurring in the first place.

A whole-food, plant-based diet has gained popularity over recent years due to its health benefits. Shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic started to spread past the boundaries of Wuhan, China, researchers studied nearly 3,000 health care workers at risk of COVID-19 infection. Those following a plant-based diet were found to have a 73 percent lower risk of moderate-to-severe COVID-19 disease and a lower rate of infection. Conversely, processed meat has been associated with an increased risk of infection.

Diets that were more plant-based than the standard American diet, but included some animal products, such as vegetarian and pescatarian diets, were associated with a 53 percent lower risk of moderate-to-severe disease, which is less of a protective effect compared with a fully plant-based diet. A plant-based diet also addresses many of the lifestyle diseases that increase the risk and severity of COVID-19 severity, such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

Fruits and vegetables are filled with antioxidants and other nutrients, and consequently, they are very anti-inflammatory. This could explain why they are protective against COVID-19, which causes a large amount of inflammation in the body. Research has shown that people who consume more than 500 grams per day of vegetables have an 86 percent lower risk of COVID-19.

One study found that in people who were hospitalized due to COVID-19 consuming more vegetables, fruit, and fiber was associated with reduced severity of disease, shorter hospital stays, and lower markers of inflammation.

In a 2020 United Nations report titled “Preventing the Next Pandemic,” intensive agricultural farming practices, such as factory farming or concentrated animal feeding operations, are believed to be responsible for more than 50 percent of zoonotic diseases.

Human demand for animal products leads many farmers to adopt intensive farming practices, allowing diseases to spread rapidly. This could increase the risk of a virus mutating and affecting humans. Cramped conditions and close proximity between animals enable infections to spread rapidly from one animal to the next.

Genetically modified animals are bred for higher milk production and larger size to maximize profitability. Genetic variability is important in the survival of any species. Possessing different genes allows some individuals to be inherently more resistant to infections which makes the population stronger as a whole. Genetically homogenous animal populations contribute to the rapid spread of infectious diseases.

According to the World Health Organization, the animal agriculture sector can be responsible for up to 80 percent of total antibiotic consumption in some countries. Antibiotics are used to reduce the spread of disease on factory farms. However, this widespread use of antibiotics for farmed animals comes with the consequence of antibiotic-resistant infections. If these infections become able to infect humans and we don’t have an antibiotic to treat them, it almost certainly results in the death of the infected individual.

Factory farms also produce large amounts of animal waste. If not disposed of correctly, animals lie in their own excrement, which is a breeding ground for infections. The waste may contaminate water supplies with bacteria and viruses that could infect humans.

Pig factory farms promoted the transmission of the H1N1 swine flu pandemic of 2009, which resulted in documented human cases in 170 countries. Shifting to plant-based proteins, such as tofu and beans, would reduce the demand for such intensive farming practices and consequently reduce the risk of zoonotic diseases.

News of the H5N1 human case should be treated with urgency if we are to avoid another future pandemic. Shifting to a plant-based diet would not only protect individuals’ health but also likely reduce the risk of zoonotic diseases.

Roxanne Becker is a lifestyle medicine physician.


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