Thursday, April 30, 2009

Pigs, press, and pandemics

I really need to switch my morning wake-up call from NPR to one of the pre-set "soothing" waterfall sounds. As it is, lately every day when my alarm goes off, my sleep addled brain can't properly process all of the damn swine flu news without turning it into some bizarre, half-waking dream about The Stand.

I don't do well with disease and pandemics. To this day, I can't watch perfectly good shows like "House" (and that's saying something, because I loves me some Hugh Laurie) because any plot line involving Things That Could Feasibly Happen In Real Life tends to send me into panic attacks. It's not fun.

Still, I do what I think is an admirable job of keeping a lid on my hypochondrism, and maintain a fairly reasonable and realistic idea of how these sorts of things play out.

Which is why I'm getting a little overwhelmed with and pissed off at the current media coverage of the swine flu outbreak.

I understand that it's difficult to find the balance between sensationalism and practicality when it comes to something as potentially dangerous as a new virus. You want to strike a balance between proper preparedness and not getting irrationally freaked out. But there seems to be a lot of misinformation and/or misperception out there at the moment.

A new virus with the potential for pandemic is definitely something to take seriously, but I think it's also important that we keep in mind that regular ol' influenza kills thousands of people in this country each year. So far, swine flu ain't got nothing on that (and let's hope it stays that way). It's also been noted that we have two vaccinations that appear to be effective against the swine flu, and many of the cases in the US have so far been blessedly mild.

So I'm taking a wait-and-see approach to this and trying not to flip out with notions of a Spanish Flu-like outbreak.

That said, I can't help but wonder: Scientists have tracked the epicenter of the outbreak to the town of La Gloria, which is home to a large-scale pig farming operation (run by U.S. pork behemoth Smithfield Foods). Is there a connection between the factory and the virus? Conditions at places like that are notoriously foul, with little emphasis placed on proper animal waste treatment. In fact, that's the case across the border in the US as well.

According to an article over at Grist (worth reading the whole thing, btw):
In a statement issued late Sunday, Smithfield said it had “found no clinical signs or symptoms of the presence of swine influenza in the company’s swine herd or its employees at its joint ventures in Mexico.” The wording is interesting here—“no signs or symptoms,” but no information about actual testing of pigs for flu strains. Could pigs carry a flu virus without being visibly ill? Tara Smith, an epidemiologist at the University of Iowa who has done groundbreaking work around hog confinements and the emergence of the deadly, antibiotic-resistant MRSA staph infection, told me in an interview that one would expect to see at least some sign of sickness in hogs carrying a flu bug. Of course, precisely for biosecurity reasons, CAFO operators rabidly resist visitors. When I toured a CAFO-intense county in Iowa a couple of years ago and approached a massive, reeking hog building, an employee rushed to intercept me, claiming that germs from a single healthy human could wipe out an entire 10,000-hog confinement. Confined hogs, you see, are extremely immune-compromised. One hopes that health authorities have been allowed to inspect the Granjas Carroll facilities.

It’s important to note as well that non-symptomatic pigs can carry flu. Here is a line from the World Health Organization’s recently posted FAQ on swine flu: “The virus is spread among pigs by aerosols, direct and indirect contact, and asymptomatic carrier pigs” (emphasis mine).

The piece goes on to note that residents of La Gloria, including health workers, have noted large swarms of flies congregating on the piles of pig manure--and, according to a study published in the May-June 2008 issue of Public Health Reports, flies can and do sometimes carry the flu virus.

In fact, La Gloria residents were coming down with a "respiratory ailment," with symptoms matching what would later come to be identified as the swine flu, as early as February and it "infected 60 percent of the town’s 1,800 inhabitants."

Certainly these are facts worthy of concern, both in terms of how the situation was and is being handled in Mexico, and--perhaps more importantly--how we're all dealing with the possible connections between industrial scale food animal confinement operations.

A self-described "wackjob environmentalist" friend of mine sent me an email recently raising concerns about how the outbreak is being reported on:
  • Extensive infection in healthy adults, 20-40 (most other flus predominantly affect children and the elderly). This implies a high infectiousness/lack of resistance.
  • Very short period from infection to illness (2 days is what the CDC is citing).
  • Wide spread in a short amount of time, although the evidence suggests that it was present and circulating for over a month before anyone reported on it.
  • The international society for infectious diseases didn't get any reports on it until April 24th. ( ->search the archives). They monitor this kind of thing as a profession.
  • Virus is a combination of human, swine and avian flu strains. How exactly did three types of flu from different animal species mix?
I don't know enough about epidemiology to even begin addressing these questions, but they seem entirely worth asking. And one can't help but wonder what the possible health effects are of an industrial-scale industry that crams as many animals into as small a space as possible, doesn't seem to properly treat or deal with the waste produced from such operations, and produces animals with extremely compromised immune systems (the Capital Times has a refreshingly good article dealing with just that in today's paper).

So despite my desire to remain calm and rational, I can't shake the thought: Are we just beginning to reap what we've sown?

EDIT TO ADD: Coming through yet again, The Capital Times published an article detailing the severity, or lack thereof, of the current outbreak of swine flu. Comforting at least. Though it doesn't detract from the argument that industrial farming is incredibly dangerous in terms of the health of the animals and the workers.

And for some lighter fare, check out these stylish face masks for protection against disease.

(photo by Farm Sanctuary on Flickr)


Anonymous said...

i agree with you're frustration about the media coverage of this issue. my wife is a closet hypochondriac like you, and got totally freaked out last night while watching the 10 O'clock news. i had to show here the statistics and scale of the "pandemic" before she would believe me that it's not Captain Trips. we are taking sensible precautions (more hand washing, and keeping our kids from playing at the mall play-place, etc), but i refuse to play the "End is Nigh" card. obviously the H1n! virus is serious business, but it isn't going to kill half of New York, let alone the world.

Cam said...

I think the govn't should declare a mandatory week off work for all non essential buisness just to be safe :)

Anonymous said...

as much as I'd love that, the problem is, i would not have a paycheck.

Emily said...

Amend that, then, to a paid mandatory week off from work. Take some of the government assistance money the banks have been sitting on and use it for that instead. ;)

Seismic Monitor said...

I think you're right on about the media being a source of frustration and blowing things a bit out of proportion. Unfortunately, a lot of misinformation is spread that way. But the constant media attention might not be a bad thing either in this case. It has certainly made more people aware and even more prepared and taking preventative steps. The reason the alarm was sounded off so loud by public health officials was this strain of virus at first seemed quite similar to the Spanish flu strain. H1N1, killed the normally healthy. So the potential was there for this strain to be just as virulent. And it still has that possibility. The more the virus spreads, the more chances it has to mutate. That is all the media coverage telling people to wash their hands and stay home if they feel sick, etc. has been good.

As far as the conditions of the pig farms, you are right there. These are potential breeding grounds for disease the way some are taken care of. More needs to be looked into this.

The Lost Albatross