Sunday, December 31, 2017

Iran: Bird Flu, Food Insecurity & Civil Unrest


Although Iran has not reported an outbreak of avian flu to the OIE since February of 2017, we continue to see unofficial reports of large losses in their poultry sector due to HPAI H5. Five days ago, Iran's Hidden Bird Flu Burden, we looked at recent reports that bird flu has - over the past 8 months - caused the culling of more than 12 million birds
Whether that number is low, or accurate, is impossible to assess.  Iran routinely holds such numbers close to their vest.
But it comes on the heels of reports last February of 6 million birds having been culled (see H5N8 & H5N1: Murmurs From The Middle East) and OIE reports from earlier in 2017 that totaled in the millions.

This has led to shortages both in poultry, and in eggs, and steadily rising prices for Iranian consumers - not to mention serious losses for farmers, and those who sell, distribute, or work with poultry products.
Over the past three days the world has watched as Iranians have taken to the street - initially due to rising prices - but increasingly over a long list of grievances with their government. Some of those protests have ended with violence, and overnight, media reports suggest some protesters have been killed.
The Washington Post's most recent report (Report: 2 protesters in western Iran killed at night rally) actually cites government officials as blaming `bird flu'  as responsible for the rising poultry prices (up 40%) that supposedly started this civil unrest.
Unemployment remains high, and official inflation has crept up to 10 percent again. A recent increase in egg and poultry prices by as much as 40 percent, which a government spokesman has blamed on a cull over avian flu fears, appears to have been the spark for the economic protests.
While this overlooks other factors (e.g. Internet access and the proliferation of cell phones providing Iranians a `window to the outside world', a repressive government, etc.), food insecurity historically has been the straw that has broken many a repressive regime's rule.

The FAO's report The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2017 shows a sharp rise in food insecurity around the world since 2014 (see chart below), and warns:

  •  In 2016 the number of chronically undernourished people in the world is estimated to have increased to 815 million, up from 777 million in 2015 although still down from about 900 million in 2000.
  • After a prolonged decline, this recent increase could signal a reversal of trends. The food security situation has worsened in particular in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, South-Eastern Asia and Western Asia, and deteriorations have been observed most notably in situations of conflict and conflict combined with droughts or floods.
  • This report sends a clear warning signal that the ambition of a world without hunger and malnutrition by 2030 will be challenging – achieving it will require renewed efforts through new ways of working.

Even before the return of avian flu to Iran in 2016, food insecurity there was a serious concern. In 2016's Prevalence of Food Insecurity in Iran: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis, researchers found:
The prevalence of food insecurity was 49% among households (95% CI: %40-%59), 67% in children (95% CI: %63-%70), 61% in mothers (95% CI: %35-%88), 49% in adolescents (95% CI: %33-%66) and 65% in the elderly (95% CI: %44-%86).
One of the reasons we devote so much time tracking avian influenza - beyond the obvious concern that one could someday spark a pandemic - is that it has the ability to cause food shortages and economic losses that could potentially drive major world events. 
Not unlike the civil unrest we are seeing in Iran.
In 2013's Food Insecurity, Economics, And The Control Of H7N9, we looked at some of the factors that led China to move to a vaccination policy - rather that stamping out the virus through strict culling - as is done in most of the rest of the world.

A brief excerpt from that blog reads:
In many parts of the world - poultry - whether factory farmed or from backyard flocks, represents a major source of income, protein, and accrued wealth for hundreds of millions of people.
Take that away, and you risk destabilizing an entire region.
China, which produces more poultry than anyplace else on earth, reportedly raises in excess of 15 Billion birds (cite Vaccines for pandemic influenza as of 2005) each year.

Any avian virus, or a culling policy to control that virus, that seriously threatens their poultry industry also raises the specter of mass hunger in the world’s most populous nation.

And hunger, as China’s leaders know, often leads to social unrest and political instability.
The results from China's vaccination policy have not been entirely positive, however.
While they've reduced poultry losses, the problem is that as avian viruses evolve, poultry vaccines become increasingly less effective; often only masking the symptoms of infection. 
Poor vaccine matches can allow AI viruses to spread silently among flocks, to continue to reassort and evolve, and potentially lead to the emergence new subtypes of avian flu. A few earlier blogs on that include:
Subclinical Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza Virus Infection among Vaccinated Chickens, China).

Study: Recombinant H5N2 Avian Influenza Virus Strains In Vaccinated Chickens

EID Journal: Subclinical HPAI In Vaccinated Poultry – China

Over the past 12 years we've gone from dealing with just one major HPAI virus (H5N1), to seeing the emergence in China of multiple clades and/or lineages of H7N9, H5N8, H5N6, H10N8, H5N2, H5N3, H5N5 and more. 
Some of these subtypes pose a pandemic threat, while others currently only affect avian species.  But all are threats to global stability. 
Of course, it isn't just avian flu.  Climate change, the emergence of new plant viruses and fungi (i.e. wheat rust, Banana blight, etc.), FMD and African Swine Fever, and yes - even the prospects of agroterrorism - all threaten the world's food supply.
There's a prepper's adage that the world is only 9 meals away from anarchy.
A prospect that has many governments around the globe - and particularly Iran's right now - laying awake at night, wondering how to deal with whatever comes next.