Sunday, May 10, 2009

Mexican swine flu—A new threat to humanity

In order to counter the outbreak of Mexican flu or what has been popularly termed as "swine flu", the Mexican government has been provided recently with a relief aid amounting to $ 25.6 million by the World Bank. This is expected to enable Mexico to instantly buy drugs such as Tamiflu, medical supplies and equipment, and to beef up testing capacity in an effort to combat H1N1 flu at the national level (World Bank, 2009)[1]. The reputed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), based in Atlanta, United States has decided to abandon the term "swine flu" and refer to the present outbreak as the "H1N1 flu" from now onward. It is debatable whether the present virus actually originated from pigs. In fact, the virus, which is circulating, is suspected to be a cocktail of genetic components of human, avian and swine origin, according to the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE). The OIE (2009)[2] has stated that ".. the currently circulating A/H1N1 influenza virus is not simply a swine influenza virus (it has reassortant genetic material of human, avian and swine origin).." The OIE has noted that ".. swine influenza has not been shown to be transmissible to people through eating pig meat or other products derived from pigs .." Hence, it has requested members against culling of pigs. The usage of the term "swine flu" has led countries like Russia and China to ban pork imports from Mexico and the US (Sinha, 2009)[3], thus affecting international trade as well as world tourism in the backdrop of global economic slowdown.
Smithfield Corporation, the largest pig producer in the world, whose farm is being alleged as the source of the H1N1 outbreak, denies any connection between the pigs they produce and sell, and the flu that has spread. In the year 1997, Smithfield was fined $12.6 million for violation of the federal Clean Water Act (Foley, 2009)[4]. A new report titled: 'The Trouble With Smithfield: A Corporate Profile', which has been brought out by the consumer advocacy group 'Food & Water Watch', provide the details of the damage the world’s largest pork producer—Smithfield Foods has caused to the environment, animal welfare, public health, family farmers, and workers around the world (Food and Water Watch, 2009)[5]. However, Granjas Carroll, a firm managed by the US-Mexican company Smithfield, has issued a statement in April, 2009 saying none of its employees had shown any signs of illness and noting that the sick are people who had no contact with its pigs. It is one of the numerous farms operating in the region. The new form of flu is suspected to have caused the deaths of 149 people and that 1,995 possible cases have been reported at hospitals in Mexico, all patients suffering from serious pneumonia; of those, 172 have been confirmed as infected with the new strain of virus. Some health experts feel that masks do little to prevent the spread of the virus (Wilkinson and Sánchez, 2009)[6].
Experts feel that industrial animal husbandry, which involves keeping the animals in close confinement, injecting them with antibiotics so as to keep them alive in the crowded conditions and creating of vast pools and piles of waste might have promoted the spread of disease. Intensification of large-scale industrial hog farming for more and more profits took place around Mexico during the recent years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finds that "people who work with livestock may develop adverse health effects, including chronic and acute respiratory illnesses and musculoskeletal injuries, and may be exposed to infections that travel from animals to humans. Residents in areas surrounding CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) report nuisances, such as odour and flies". The usage of antibiotics may contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant pathogens. Pesticides and hormones used in CAFOs may lead to hormone-related changes in fish. Nutrients such as ammonia, nitrogen, and phosphorus, that are used can reduce oxygen in surface waters, encourage the growth of harmful algal blooms, and contaminate drinking-water sources. Trace elements, such as arsenic and copper, can contaminate surface waters and cause harm to human health (CDC, 2009)[7]. Workers employed in hog farms of North America and Europe are more likely to be infected with potentially lethal pathogens such as MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), drug resistant E. coli and Salmonella, along with swine influenza (Kirby, 2009)[8].
According to an extensive 2½-year examination conducted by the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (PCIFAP), in a study released on 29 April, 2008, the current industrial farm animal production (IFAP) system often poses unacceptable risks to public health, the environment and the welfare of the animals themselves. The study notes that the IFAP system has given monopoly power to certain large companies that process and sells animal products. Streamlined processing and standardization led to vanishing of "open markets" for animal products. The new production system runs by depending on less skilled employees. The IFAP system can be harmful to workers and neighbours. The workers employed in hog farms can serve as a bridging population, transmitting animal-borne diseases to a wider population (Pew Commission, 2008)[9].
In order to know the human cases of H1N1 influenza in the European region, one can look at the graph 1. One can decipher from the graph that most of the human cases of influenza A(H1N1) were reported from Spain (88) and United Kingdom (34). Cases were found among people who have traveled to affected areas in the Americas. On 4 May 2009, WHO/Europe was informed of the first laboratory-confirmed case of influenza A(H1N1) in Portugal. On 7 May 2009, WHO/Europe was informed of the first laboratory-confirmed case of influenza A(H1N1) in Poland. The new strain of the virus has spread beyond Mexico and the US, with confirmed cases in eighteen countries and suspected cases in more than forty-two. Officials from World Health Organisation (WHO) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) believe that the outbreak may become pandemic. Prior to the swine flu outbreak, the WHO worldwide pandemic alert was set at Phase 3 due to H5N1 "avian flu", which spread widely in birds with occasional cases in humans. After the outbreak of "swine flu", the WHO raised its alert level to Phase 5 out of 6 possible, which it defines as a "signal that a pandemic is imminent" (Wikipedia, 2009)[10].
India has recently kicked off a massive containment exercise, screening all international passengers arriving from the US, Canada and Mexico with influenza-like symptoms (Sinha, 2009)[11]. The Centre has deployed 165 doctors and 86 paramedics at 67 counters of different airports across the country. After keeping 4 different persons, who have traveled to India recently, under observation, Government health officials & WHO have subsequently stated that there is no "swine flu" in India (Wikipedia, 2009)[12]. In the meanwhile, the Government of India has declared that it has taken necessary steps to thwart the rising price of Oseltamivir phosphate or Tamiflu—an oral anti-viral drug, to combat "swine flu". It has issued a circular to ban the retail sale of Tamiflu.

[1] World Bank (2009): World Bank Transfers $25 Million to Mexico for H1N1 Flu
[2] OIE (2009): The OIE strongly counsels against the culling of pigs, World Organisation for Animal Health,
[3] Sinha, Kounteya (2009): Name dilemma: Swine flu or Mexican flu?, The Times of India, 30 April
[4] Foley, Stephen (2009): For La Gloria, the stench of blame is from pig factories, The Independent, 29 April
[5] Food and Water Watch (2009): New Report Highlights the Trouble with Smithfield
[6] Wilkinson, Tracy and Sánchez, Cecilia (2009): Mexico tries to focus on source of infection, Los Angeles Times, 28 April
[7] CDC (2009):, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta
[8] Kirby, David (2009): Swine Flu Outbreak: Nature Biting Back at Industrial Animal Production, Huffington Post, 26 April
[9] Pew Commission (2008): Putting Meat on The Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America, A Report of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, 29 April,
[10] Wikipedia (2009): 2009 swine flu outbreak
[11] Sinha, Kounteya (2009): WHO puts swine flu on higher alert level than bird flu, The Times of India, 29 April
[12] Wikipedia (2009): 2009 swine flu outbreak by country