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Death By Gobble

Turkeys Got Problems Too, You Know

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1998 book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, Jared Diamond explores how centuries of European animal husbandry facilitated the development of new human ailments from diseases carried by animals. Carried to the New World by the first explorers, these diseases (along with the guns and the steel, of course) enormously aided European conquest, wiping out a catastrophic swath of the native population. Which lends a certain grim undercurrent to those portrayals of Native Americans and Pilgrims celebrating the first Thanksgiving.

It's also an interesting reminder that the hormone-addled, water-added supermarket turkey you'll soon stuff with yet more tasty goodies once lived, breathed ... and occasionally, the poor critter got sick.

Turkeys suffer from a number of diseases, just as we do, mainly one in which protozoa attack the bowel and liver, called blackhead. (We humans have Stridex for that). The name's misleading, in that the turkeys' heads don't turn black; rather, the visible symptoms are drooping heads and yellowish discharge.

But the disease affecting turkeys that makes everyone's hearts beat a little faster is avian influenza -- bird flu.

Type A avian influenza is a virus that is carried by but seldom affects wild birds, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health. The flu is highly contagious in factory farms and can sicken and kill domesticated flocks. Of the many subtypes of the virus found in birds, the one making headlines is the highly pathogenic H5N1, which has caused human fatalities overseas and touched off fears of a pandemic when it spread (in limited cases) between humans.

"It is believed that most cases of bird flu infection in humans have resulted from contact with infected poultry or contaminated surfaces," says the Health Department's site. "The spread of avian influenza from one ill person to another has been reported very rarely, and transmission has not been observed to continue beyond one person." Sounds good, on the face of it. The concern, of course, is that H5N1 will mutate into a more dangerous strain and kill half the world's population. The irony is that historians of human diseases suggest that the three strains of human influenza came from birds in the first place.

While reports of bird flu's spread to humans in Asia may seem far from your family's table, one of the major outbreaks of highly pathogenic bird flu happened right here in Pennsylvania, in 1983. The outbreak lasted two years; 17 million birds were destroyed in eradicating it, at a cost of some $70 million.

But unless you plan to handle turkey feces and nasal secretions an awful lot, avian influenza probably isn't a worry this Thanksgiving. Other diseases carried by turkeys pose larger public health risks, including chlamydiosis, which can result in flu-like symptoms for farmers and poultry handlers, according to the Web site of AVIS, an international consortium on animal medicine. Two others can be can be transmitted through turkey meat: campylobacteriosis and the familiar samonellosis (salmonella). The latter two are treated with antibiotics, and "basic hygienic measures and proper preparation of poultry products are sufficient to prevent transmission of diseases to humans," the site advises.

So, just keep your hands clean and your oven hot this holiday, and that post-meal coma should be the only affliction you take away from turkey day. Eating wild turkey might make you feel better about your chances of contracting bird flu, while drinking the other kind will definitely help with the annoying aunt and the creepy uncle.

Gobble gobble. Cough cough.

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