Live Poultry, Chinese Cuisine and H7N9

The biggest buzzword in April’s Chinese media is no doubt “H7N9,” a new type of bird flu that has infected 77 people in the country and killed 11 of them. Compared to China’s 1.3 billion people, 11 deaths might not seem significant from an epidemiological perspective, but the news has been making people nerve-racking. There are many legitimate reasons for them to worry about the virus—its high death rate, mysterious channel of infection, unpredictable genetic mutations that may lead to human-to-human transmission and the virus’ potential to repeat the SARS chaos that afflicted the country a decade ago.

The Chinese government so far has been doing a pretty good job to contain the spread of the disease and keep the information transparent and available to the public. Luckily, the pandemic seems to be under control, for now.

Bird flu made the front page around late winter or early spring almost each year in the last decade. Each time the situation got more severe than the previous one. As we start to ask what makes a bird flu virus so lethal in humans and what facilitates the spread of the disease, we not only need explanations from analyses conducted in labs but also perspectives on how the dietary culture in the region may have played a role.

In China and many of its neighboring countries, people have much better chance to be in contact with live poultry than people living in the western world. It is not uncommon for Chinese people to go to a live poultry market to buy chicken, duck and pigeons. My grandparents still do it for every family get-together. Let’s be honest, the taste of the never-frozen-and-packaged poultry is way better than meats you can get from any of the supermarkets here in the U.S.

Although the appreciation for freshly-butchered poultry in many of the Asian culinary cultures has been around for a long time, H7N9 should be a wake-up call for the region to reassess the way people handle live poultry.

A culinary culture compatible with the nature 100 years ago might not still be so well-suited for the world we live in today. Many things have changed—a warmer planet, significant lower biodiversity and dramatic urbanization across Asia. We don’t know how specifically these changes may have contributed to today’s disease landscape but a fact is that human bodies have become more susceptible to viruses used to only infect animals.

Reacting to the H7N9 pandemic, the Chinese government has shut down live poultry markets in the affected regions. It is unclear if this is just a temperate measure or if the government is planning to develop any regulation for these markets moving forward. But for a country where more than half of its population lives in the congested eastern coastal area, finding a long-term solution to reduce the likelihood of outbreaks of dangerous acute infectious disease such as H7N9 is urgent.

I was living in Beijing 10 years ago and witnessed the SARS disaster unfolding in the pandemic’s epicenter since day one. A lot of valuable lessons were learned from loss of lives. To fight H7N9 and other yet-to-come infectious diseases, we should be smarter and more strategic, which sometimes may just mean getting used to living in downtown without a live poultry market.

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  1. Has China done a good job in handling H7N9? What should we learn? | Thoughts From Broad Street - May 14, 2013

    […] I mentioned in an earlier blog post, as significant changes have occurred in the environment we live in, new diseases are real threats […]

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