Friday, May 1, 2009
PIG FLU UPDATE: MORE QUESTIONS ABOUT FACTORY FARMS
Mike Davis, Guardian, UK - Since its identification during the Great Depression, H1N1 swine flu had only drifted slightly from its original genome. Then in 1998 a highly pathogenic strain began to decimate sows on a farm in North Carolina and new, more virulent versions began to appear almost yearly, including a variant of H1N1 that contained the internal genes of H3N2 (the other type-A flu circulating among humans).
What caused this acceleration of swine flu evolution? Virologists have long believed that the intensive agricultural system of southern China is the principal engine of influenza mutation: both seasonal "drift" and episodic genomic "shift". But the corporate industrialization of livestock production has broken China's natural monopoly on influenza evolution. Animal husbandry in recent decades has been transformed into something that more closely resembles the petrochemical industry than the happy family farm depicted in school readers.
In 1965, for instance, there were 53m US hogs on more than 1m farms; today, 65m hogs are concentrated in 65,000 facilities. This has been a transition from old-fashioned pig pens to vast excremental hells, containing tens of thousands of animals with weakened immune systems suffocating in heat and manure while exchanging pathogens at blinding velocity with their fellow inmates.
Last year a commission convened by the Pew Research Center issued a report on "industrial farm animal production" that underscored the acute danger that "the continual cycling of viruses … in large herds or flocks [will] increase opportunities for the generation of novel virus through mutation or recombinant events that could result in more efficient human to human transmission." . . .
Any amelioration of this new pathogen ecology would have to confront the monstrous power of livestock conglomerates such as Smithfield Farms (pork and beef) and Tyson (chickens). The commission reported systemic obstruction of their investigation by corporations, including blatant threats to withhold funding from cooperative researchers .
This is a highly globalized industry with global political clout. Just as Bangkok-based chicken giant Charoen Pokphand was able to suppress enquiries into its role in the spread of bird flu in southeast Asia, so it is likely that the forensic epidemiology of the swine flu outbreak will pound its head against the corporate stonewall of the pork industry.
Scientific American - New evidence indicates that our agricultural practices are leading directly to the spread of human disease. Much has been made in recent years of MRSA, the antibiotic-resistant strain of Staphylococcus bacteria, and for good reason. In 2005, the most recent year for which figures are available, about 95,000 MRSA infections caused the deaths of nearly 19,000 Americans. . . .
Perhaps we should not be surprised. Modern factory farms keep so many animals in such a small space that the animals must be given low doses of antibiotics to shield them from the fetid conditions. The drug-resistant bacteria that emerge have now entered our food supply. The first study to investigate farm-bred MRSA in the U.S. amazingly, the Food and Drug Administration has shown little interest in testing the nation's livestock for this disease recently found that 49 percent of pigs and 45 percent of pig workers in the survey harbored the bacteria. Unfortunately, these infections can spread. According to a report published in Emerging Infectious Diseases, MRSA from animals is now thought to be responsible for more than 20 percent of all human MRSA cases in the Netherlands.
In April 2008 a high-profile commission of scientists, farmers, doctors and veterinarians recommended that the FDA phase out the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in farm animal production, to "preserve these drugs to treat sick animals, not healthy ones" in the words of former Kansas governor John Carlin, the commission's chair. The FDA agreed and soon announced that it would ban the use of one widespread antibiotic except for strictly delineated medical purposes. But five days before the ban was set to take effect, the agency quietly reversed its position. Although no official reason was given, the opposition of the powerful farm lobby is widely thought to have played a role.
James Ridgeway, Unsilent Generation - One of the unusual things about the current H1N1 virus, compared with the strains that cause our yearly seasonal flu outbreaks, is that it doesn't seem to discriminate on the basis of age. That may change as the pandemic develops, but it may not: The massive 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic is also known for killing across all age groups.
There is, nonetheless, an age angle here, and it has to do with those garden-variety annual influenza outbreaks, and how the medical, political, and media establishments have handled them. Because the great majority of the deaths caused each and every year by these "ordinary" flu viruses –some 36,000 on average in the United States alone, according to the CDC – are of people over 65 years old. Some years it's more, and some years it's fewer: During the 1990s, the number of deaths ranged from 17,000 to 54,000. But every year, tens of thousands of old folk succumb, with little fanfare and minimal media attention, to flu-related deaths.
One major public health initiative has been launched in response to these deaths, and that is to increase the number of older Americans who are vaccinated against the flu each year. The percentage of elders who are vaccinated has grown about four-fold in the last 30 years. But there's just one problem: The vaccine apparently doesn't work very well, if at all. . .
A study published in September 2008 in Britain's most respected medical journal, the Lancet, found no correlation at all between flu vaccination and a reduced risk of illness and death. . . .
Part of the problem, as AMNews notes, is "the nature of influenza vaccine, which aims at a constantly moving target. The viral strains it includes change every year. Circulating viruses shift constantly. And every season is different in regard to severity and spread." But it appears there's another problem with the vaccine, as well, when it comes to older people. Yet another recent study found that old folk might be better protected by a vaccine containing four times the usual dose. As Reuters reported, researchers concluded that "this is likely because their immune systems are not as active as those of younger people". . .
The excellent public health blog Effect Measure had some other ideas on how to protect older people, since the vaccine seems to be proving ineffective. But this would involve shifting the focus of national public health efforts. . .
It makes perfect sense, when you think about it: Young people are more likely to infect their elders than vice versa, and since the vaccine apparently works better on them, why not push them to have it? But frankly, I can't see this working. I can't see young people, who know they aren't likely to die from the flu, going out and getting vaccinated just to protect older folk.
I can't see this, any more than I can see the newspapers running headlines every winter proclaiming: "30,000 Geezers Dead in Seasonal Flu Outbreak," or the president going on TV to say that the government would stop at nothing to protect granny from this dangerous virus. The fact that these things don't happen, I think, is proof that the older we get, the less our lives are worth in this society.
Johann Hari, Independent, UK - A swelling number of scientists believe swine flu has not happened by accident. No: they argue that this global pandemic – and all the deaths we are about to see – is the direct result of our demand for cheap meat. . .
To understand how this might happen, you have to compare two farms. My grandparents had a pig farm in the Swiss mountains, with around 20 swine at any one time. What happened there if, in the bowels of one of their pigs, a virus mutated and took on a deadlier form? At every stage, the virus would meet stiff resistance from the pigs' immune systems. They were living in fresh air, on the diet they evolved with, and without stress – so they had a robust ability to fight back. If the virus did take hold, it would travel only as far as the sick hog could walk. So if the virus would then have around 20 other pigs to spread and mutate in – before it would hit the end of its own evolutionary path, and die off. If it was a really lucky, plucky virus, it might make it to market – where it would come up against more healthy pigs living in small herds. It had little opportunity to fan out across a large population of pigs or evolve a strain that could be transmitted to humans.
Now compare this to what happens when a virus evolves in a modern factory farm. In most swine farms today, 6,000 pigs are crammed snout-to-snout in tiny cages where they can barely move, and are fed for life on an artificial pulp, while living on top of cess-pools of their own stale faeces.
Instead of having just 20 pigs to experiment and evolve in, the virus now has a pool of thousands, constantly infecting and reinfecting each other. The virus can combine and recombine again and again. . .
As Dr Michael Greger, director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture at the Humane Society of the United States, explains: "Put all this together, and you have a perfect storm environment for these super-strains. If you wanted to create global pandemics, you'd build as many of these factory farms as possible. That's why the development of swine flu isn't a surprise to those in the public health community. In 2003, the American Public Health Association – the oldest and largest in world – called for a moratorium of factory farming because they saw something like this would happen. It may take something as serious as a pandemic to make us realise the real cost of factory farming.". . .
It's no coincidence that we have seen a sudden surge of new viruses in the past decade at precisely the moment when factory farming has intensified so dramatically. For example, between 1994 and 2001, the number of American pigs that live and die in vast industrial farms in the US spiked from 10 per cent to 72 per cent. Swine flu had been stable since 1918 – and then suddenly, in this period, went super-charged. . .
We always knew that factory farms were a scar on humanity's conscience – but now we fear they are a scar on our health. If we carry on like this, bird flu and swine flu will be just the beginning of a century of viral outbreaks. As we witness a global pandemic washing across the world, we need to shut down these virus factories – before they shut down even more human lives.
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- I grew up in Chautauqua County, NY. I graduated from Edinboro University of Pennyslvania in 1981 with a BFA in Jewelry and Metalworking. I have been married 31 years. I currently run a small business with my husband. We both enjoy the outdoors and animals a great deal and live on a tiny farm in Western, NY.