It appears that the so-called swine flu pandemic has been averted for the moment due to some quick thinking and action. As I write this, the tenor of news reports has changed from panic to the smug feeling that all is under control. But, as with previous episodes of disease, it may well recur: SARS and Avian flu have appeared more than once, as have Ebola and Legionnaire’s Disease.
In any case, there are serious underlying issues that will remain unaddressed. This is also normal. SARS is believed to have arisen from a bug that jumped from another species to humans, especially because of the close proximity with which domestic animals and humans live in some parts of China. Yet China has taken practically no steps to reduce the possibility of such mutations in future.
In the case of swine flu, it has been alleged that the initial outbreak took place in a part of Mexico where Smithfield Foods, the biggest U.S. pork producer, has a large farm rearing almost a million hogs a year. There are reports of serious air and water pollution in the area from pig fecal matter and other waste, not to mention the unbearable stench and respiratory ailments afflicting residents. Parts of the American South have experienced similar pollution problems from hog-farming.
The fact is that we have just about reached the limits of American-style factory-farming. The Farm Bill 2007 that was passed last year continues to support big farmers through massive subsidies. Michael Pollan, UC Berkeley professor in journalism and an authority on America’s food chains, whose The Omnivore’s Dilemma was a nationwide best-seller, makes the point that even though current American techniques are highly efficient—each farmer feeds as many as 10,000 people—the toll extracted on the earth, on aquifers, and on human health is extraordinary.
The consequence of fattening chickens, cattle, and hogs in highly confined spaces is that they are far more prone to disease than free-range animals. Thus, they have to be pumped full of antibiotics. All that, of course, ends up in the bodies of humans who consume their flesh, and the result is antibiotic-resistant staph, which renders hospital visits potentially deadly.
Not to mention the fact that the animals are so stressed out that they are producing toxins. There was the curious incident of “contact lenses for chickens,” a Harvard business school case-study no less, on putting vision-blurring lenses on chickens to prevent them from pecking each other to death because of overcrowding.
Similarly, over-production of corn, via “high-fructose corn-syrup,” is engendering a diabetes epidemic.
American food policies and practices need to change. Otherwise, there will be more and more epidemics related to factory farms.
Rajeev Srinivasan wrote this opinion from Chennai, India.
Yes, government machinery has swung into action
It should be clarified that “swine flu” is so named because it is caused by a strain of the influenza virus that is endemic in swine, and not because this flu originated in pigs. There is currently no evidence that the virus has entered the human population directly from pigs.
In fact, the outbreak of the Influenza A (H1N1) flu virus, aka swine flu, does not present any more danger than the regular seasonal flu. It is spread in the same way as the seasonal flu and is a concern for the same population considered at a higher risk for seasonal flu. Millions of Americans get the flu each season and about 36,000 die on average per year from complications. To put things in perspective, as of May 16, 2009, there have been four swine flu related deaths in the United States.
Now that U.S. and Mexican authorities have lowered the alerts, the mainstream media has come under heavy criticism for their coverage of the flu. They are blamed for having caused unwarranted fear and worry in people. On the other hand, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) is being praised from all quarters for their response to this crisis. The CDC wasted no time getting their staff on the ground in Mexico. They collaborated with global organizations to distribute test kits to laboratories around the globe. Within our borders, they worked with health and education departments to prevent the spread of the disease.
The CDC played a major role not only in containing the outbreak in the United States, but also in getting important, accurate, and timely information out to people. Their easy-to-navigate website, which was continually updated, proved to be an important tool in achieving that goal. They utilized new tools and social media—from having widgets that other websites can add to funnel users to the CDC website, to using Twitter to connect with the younger generations.
And even though the mainstream media has moved on from this episode and people are beginning to put it behind them, the CDC is continuing their efforts in the United States and around the world. This is because they are concerned that there is a chance that the virus can spread to the southern hemisphere where their flu season is just beginning, and it can present itself again during our next flu season in fall.
There is no doubt about the need for research on the effects of animal farming on the environment, such as those led by the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (PCIFAP), that will eventually will lead to “farming without harming.” But in the meantime, government agencies will continue to keep us informed and protected.
Lekshmi Nair works for a life sciences firm in San Diego, Calif.