Flu, Farms, and Faith, Part Two

Influenza research, CDC Photo Credit: James Gathany Well, not surprisingly, the H1N1 flu is still with us. We know more this week than we knew last week but we still don’t have a clear picture of what is happening.  That will take a while. Last week I gave you links to the CDC and WHO influenza sites. This week I want to add this page from the “New England Journal of Medicine”.  You may or may not feel like reading the two original articles there but I would encourage you to read this editorial. In it Robert Belshe distinguishes between the triple reasortment virus that has been around for several years and the swine origin influenza virus that is currently infecting people around the world. At the WHO site ,this article may help you understand some of the factors that WHO and others have to consider.

As you read this article and others like it, I hope you are getting sense of how complex the subjects of virology and pandemics and epidemiology are. Viruses, compared to other life forms, are “simple” and yet they are amazingly complex. There are lots of important things we don’t know about them.

The other thing to realize as you have been reading at the WHO and CDC sites and watching the TED and NOW video links from last week is that there are lots of people and organizations actively looking for the next pandemic and the next emerging disease.  ( For those of you wh0 prefer to read rather than watch, here’s a print version with similar content to the TED video)

And of course related to all this is the whole topic of zoonotic and emerging diseases. Did you know that

“In the last 20 or 25 years —  and we term this as the age of emerging infectious diseases — approximately 75 percent of the new human diseases that have emerged are zoonotic, and of the 1,461 human pathogens that we know about today, about 60 percent are what we would term “multihost pathogens.” In other words, they don’t reside just in people by themselves. Contacts through animals or animal products —  even plants — are actually responsible for multihost diseases.”    (American Public Health Association, “Get Ready” interview with Lonnie King from the CDC)

 And listen to this from NPR on a “Nature”  article about emerging infectious diseases.  And here is the abstract of the article in “Nature” ( you must be a subscriber to read the entire article).

Now, why am I asking you to read all this? Because the threat of pandemics and emerging infectious diseases and Plaguezoonotic diseases is not going to go away. These aren’t new problems. There have always been infectious and zoonotic diseases. But their incidence seems to be increasing and the causes are complex.

On the one hand that means this is a job for specialists. I, for one, am glad there are dedicated professionals on the job around the world. But on the other hand, the rest of us need to have a basic understanding of these issues. Public policy is going to be made, and we need to be smart about it. We need all of our abilities, all of our various skills to make wise decisions. We need scientists, and economists, and sociologists and political scientists and yes even theologians to be involved.

Ultimately, this isn’t just about infectious disease. It is really about human interaction with the environment. Some of the sources I linked you to talked about humans hunting and eating bush-meat and how this enhances the opportunities for emerging diseases to spread. And as we think about this, we need to consider the social, political and economic realities that are involved in why people eat bushmeat.

We need to think about the movement of people into previously unihabited (by humans) areas and how war, famine , politics, and other social and political realities influence that movement.

We will need to think about the global transportation of people, animals, and goods and how that contributes to the spread of disease.

We need to think about the non therapeutic use  of antibiotics  in food animals- why its done, who does it and what are the implications of its continuation and the implications of stopping it.

We need to think about the environmental, health, economic, and ethical costs of intensive farming practices.

We need to think about the environmental, health, economic , and ethical costs of small family farming practices.

Now each of us don’t need to think about all these things with the same level of complexity. We can’t all be experts in each of these things. But we all do need a basic understanding of all these things.

What does our faith have to do with this? 

People of faith need to embrace Jesus’ radically inclusive view of neighbor- the small farmer in southeast Asia, the families hunting for bush-meat, and the confinement hog farmer in the US. 

People of faith need to be thinking about God’s desires for the world. We need to be thinking about how we participate in God’s shalom, God’s vision of wholeness and health and well-being for all.  To effectively participate in moving toward shalom, we are going to need science, and we are going to need information. We are going to need to think about complex issues in comprehensive ways.

I’d like to know, what do you think?


Next week, I think, we’ll narrow our focus and consider farming practices.


Some of you may be familiar with Francis Collins and his work on the Human Genome project and his book, The Language of God.  Dr. Collins and some collegues have a new website on science and faith, BioLogos and a blog on Beliefnet, Science and the Sacred.   Thanks to Bill Tammeus of  Bill’s Faith Matters weblog for highlighting these sites on his blog.


3 thoughts on “Flu, Farms, and Faith, Part Two

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s