Emerging thoughts on swine flu

Globally, the number of cases of swine flu, and deaths attributed to or probably caused by the H1N1 virus are escalating; the microbe is certainly on the move. The BBC has a decent map of the outbreaks. Today, (in an article depicting a cool picture of a thermal scanner at Incheon International Airport in South Korea), The New York Times reports that borders are tightening around the world, as people suspected of having flu are quarantined, travel to/from Mexico is discouraged or prohibited, and visas for Mexicans will be denied (in Japan, for example). Yesterday the WHO moved into phase 4 of pandemic alert, which means that human-to-human transmission has been verified, risking outbreaks at a community level. According to the WHO’sEpidemic and Pandemic Alert and Response (EPR), the move to Phase 4 indicates that “the ability to cause sustained disease outbreaks in a community marks a significant upwards shift in risk for a pandemic.”

Cases of swine flu among (and passed between) humans in North America, and elsewhere, may seem out-of-the-blue. But in an article published yesterday at Socialist, Mike Davis argues that this month’s outbreak is plagued by a paradox: “that while totally unexpected, it was accurately predicted.” The clues did not come from local, national, or global public health surveillance systems (an important aspect I cannot delve into here), because as far as swine flu is concerned, those basically do not exist. At least, that seems to be the case so far. No, industrial livestock production is the main culprit here.

As we all watch the inevitable–Mexico taking the blame–I’d like to draw on Davis’ article to briefly highlight a few points about the ways in which capitalism is contemptible in the new outbreak. First of all, there is the totally unsurprising fact that more resources go into Big Pharma and biodefense than pandemic preparedness or aid from richer to poorer nations to support basic, local public health infrastructure. According to Davis (and I agree), this perpetuates the myth that local (viral or bacterial) strain isolation and identification and widespread antiviral (or antibacterial) treatments among populations at risk of exposure is an effective means of containment. This is the current strategy supported by the WHO and the U.S. CDC, amid weak surveillance. But of course, microbes are highly mobile and adaptive, as the current swine flu almost-pandemic clearly demonstrates.

Second, industrial livestock production is a powerful driver of viral (and bacterial) evolution. Davis emphasizes that the transition “from old-fashioned pig pens to vast excremental hell, unprecedented in nature, containing tens, even hundreds of thousands of animals with weakened immune systems, suffocating in heat and manure, while exchanging pathogens at blinding velocity with their fellow inmates and pathetic progenies” creates a perfect storm for evolving pathogens likely to establish resistance to antivirals and antibiotics. This is not just the case in China (everyone’s favorite target for allocating bird flu blame) or Mexico (everyone’s new favorite target for allocating swine flu blame). To quote Davis, anyone “who has ever driven through Tar Heel, N.C. or Milford, Utah–where Smithfield Foods subsidiaries each annually produce more than 1 million pigs as well as hundreds of lagoons full of toxic shit–will intuitively understand how profoundly agribusiness has meddled with the laws of nature.” In short, in addition to animals raised for slaughter in cruel conditions, chemically enhanced and/or genetically altered meat products, environmental degradation, and unjust toxic factory work conditions, the global industrial food complex is producing some really scary microbes as well.

Although I don’t have time to follow up on this at the moment, it would also be interesting to trace the traffic of samples and the (supra)national laboratory networks in which they are circulated for diagnostic purposes. (Here the excellent work of Theresa McPhail on bird flu, global health and biosecurity comes to mind). Such an investigation would further nuance our understanding of how globalized industrial politics, economies, and biosecurities shape and are shaped by cultural politics of microbes and infectious disease blame. No matter where this particular pandemic originated, the smoking guns are corporate, governmental and supra-governmental, not merely Mexican (Chinese, Indonesian, etc.).

P.S. to my original post:

Thankfully there is a conversation taking place about the role of US-owned factory farms based in Mexico in starting this outbreak, by dumping fecal matter, etc. from industrial hog farms in local water supplies.Sadly, this critical aspect of the story does not seem to be getting much attention in the US mass media.

5 replies on “Emerging thoughts on swine flu”

Food safety and the treatment of animals are central themes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Michael Pollan also discusses the heavy use of antibiotics and the negative effects of changing the natural diets of animals to create cheap food and further encourage farming subsidies.

Hopefully this outbreak will raise eyebrows and questions as to how animals are treated and how their waste and runoff is treated.

Maybe all food products from Mexico should be banned? But, alas, I forgot about NAFTA.

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