Avian influenza (AI): where, how, when (part two)

Avian Influenza (AI) was described in birds for the first time in the world in 1878, by an Italian: Professor Edoardo Perroncito, parasitologist and pathologist at the Scuola Superiore di Veterinaria in Turin, who described it as follows: ‘A very serious disease dominated in the autumn of last year (1877 n. d.r.) and this winter in the poultry of the Piedmontese plains and hills’ (we can see in this temporal reference the typical seasonal trend of Avian Influenza in our days n.d.r.). ‘It arose and remained mild in some villages; in others, however, it produced very serious losses, depopulating many farmers from their poultry farms. It appeared rare at first, then became frequent; it then invaded farmhouses and villages and for a few months sowed real carnage in many places’. (The description of the course of the epidemic suggests that the virus mutated from low to high pathogenicity, ed.) “In addition to the common and foreign breeds of hens, guinea fowl, ducks and geese became infected, so that in many places, and particularly in Casalgrasso, all poultry of the low court suffered the sad effects of the epidemic. Only in the last few months has it begun to diminish and we hope that with the application of the measures, which we are going to propose, in the interests of agriculture and the domestic economy, it will soon cease altogether. “*

*from Professor Perroncito’s original book


Professor Perroncito not only describes these cases, but meticulously lists a large number of nations and regions in which the disease has manifested itself, with very serious economic damage as early as 1789.

Cover of Professor Perroncito’s book – 1878


Other researchers, Rivolta and Del Prato described the disease in 1880 and called it ‘Typhus exudativus gallinarum‘.

Massa, Centanni, Lisi and Savonuzzi described it in Northern Italy in 1901 and discovered that it was sustained by a ‘filterable micro-organism‘.

In Hutyra-Marek’s 1916 publication, Avian Influenza is described as ‘a serious disease in Northern Italy, characterised by very high fever, hypothermia and death’.

Stazzi and Mirri in 1942 reported: ‘in the past it was a disease present in Northern Italy, the origin of the infection was Lombardy, so much so that abroad the disease is called Peste Lombarda’.

We can state with certainty that intensive livestock farms did not exist at that time and we can state with equal certainty that the disease was very much present then.

Evidently, influenza viruses were transmitted quite naturally from wild birds to the rural farms of the time and, in all probability, from the rural farms back to the wild birds.

Therefore, it is clear that intensive livestock farms are not the cause of the problem, but, on the contrary, the cause is to be found, in the present and in the past, in the extensive rural and free-range farms, which have and had direct contact with wild birds.

Banning intensive poultry farms would therefore be a serious mistake, since they are the only ones that, by keeping the animals out of contact with wild birds, can, through preventive biosecurity measures, break the chain of infection of Avian Influenza. In some areas, preventive measures could be supported by an effective vaccination plan, thus minimising the number of disease outbreaks.

But if we broaden our vision beyond the borders of the infectious disease, we can clearly see that the disappearance of intensive poultry farming would be an even greater mistake, if we consider the primary function that intensive poultry farming has in sustaining the world’s demand for food.

Currently, 29 billion birds (chickens, geese, ducks, guinea fowl and turkeys) are reared in the world thanks to intensive poultry farming. 137 million tonnes of chicken meat and around 1.6 trillion eggs are produced annually.

These farms, thanks to genetic selection, have a very high degree of environmental sustainability: a broiler chicken produces one kilo of meat (and therefore food) while consuming only one and a half kilos of feed. This figure is constantly being improved; all it would take is to improve this feed-to-meat conversion rate by 1% and the same amount of meat production would be achieved worldwide, with less land use of 10,000 km2.

Today’s broiler chickens, although very productive, generate only 0.8% of greenhouse gases and this percentage is continuously decreasing due to the continuous improvement efforts of the poultry industry.

The water footprint of poultry meat and egg production, when assessed on the basis of their nutritional characteristics, is lower than that of many plant foods. Moreover, they allow most of the world’s population to have access to animal proteins (of far greater biological value than all plant-based proteins) and other valuable nutrients at a cost compatible with wages in most countries of the world.

In conclusion, it is important to emphasise that the preventive work carried out on intensive livestock farms against Avian Influenza has reduced the incidence of the disease in the last epidemics to less than 1% of the livestock reared (140 million affected, compared to 19,000 million animals reared).

The sector’s production capacity was thus safeguarded and the world population was fed at an acceptable cost even during the coronavirus pandemic.

In the past, with the low productivity of old, slow-growing animal breeds and the rural world’s inability to prevent disease, mortality rates of 100% were often reached in poultry, leaving the population in hunger and destitution.

From the above, it can be understood that the animal welfare world’s reductionist view on how to deal with the Avian Influenza epidemic can lead to real humanitarian catastrophes.

The best strategy for preventing the dramatic repercussions that limited thinking would produce can only be achieved by taking a broad view of all the components and factors at play, i.e. by thinking holistically and therefore simultaneously as animal activists, ecologists, producers and certainly also as conscious consumers.

(link to first part)


The editorial staff of MAC