Swine Flu Exposes Media Weakness

As has been reported on Grist last week and in more detail today considerable evidence points to the possibility of a link between a ginormous Smithfield factory pig farm in the Vera Cruz area and the outbreak of the swine flu in Mexico. A couple of examples from Tom Philpott's post today in Grist:

On Monday, Mexican authorities revealed that at least one victim of
the original outbreak definitely had the same strain of swine flu now
wreaking havoc in Mexico City—and his is the earliest known case of the
disease. The Associated Press reported Monday that:

Mexican Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova said tests now show that
a 4-year-old boy contracted swine flu in Veracruz state, where a
community has been protesting pollution from a large pig farm, at least
two weeks before the first death confirmed by the Mexican government.
The farm is run by Granjas Carroll de Mexico.

The question now becomes: Did the outbreak that started in February
and killed three kids involve swine flu—or was the 4-year-old boy’s
infection an isolated case? If not—if the La Gloria epidemic turns out
to be ground zero of the infection—could the swine-flu outbreak have
originated literally in the shadows of Granjas Carroll’s hog

Philpott also links to a public health paper that shows how flies — vast swarms of which were reported in the area of the factory farm in Mexico — could be a vector for the disease.

[R]esearch conducted during an HPAI outbreak in Kyoto,
Japan, in 2004 found that flies caught in proximity to broiler
facilities where the outbreak took place carried the same strains of
H5N1 influenza virus as found in chickens of an infected poultry farm.

The public-health scientific community has been sounding the alarm
for years about the potential for bio-catastrophe brewing on industrial
animal farms. The Graham/Sibergeld paper crystallizes those concerns.
I’ll tease out a few key themes.

Untreated manure in lagoons, pointed to by La Gloria residents as a health hazard, can indeed contain flu strains.

Animal biosolids contain a range of pathogens that may
include influenza viruses, which can persist for extended periods of
time in the absence of specific treatment.

Yet conventional news outlets, from first-rate newspapers to right-wing
tabloid sites such as Drudge, despite spending thousands upon thousands
of column inches on warnings, face masks, travel restrictions, and
such, have only begun to even mention the possible cause of the pandemic.

To be fair, the Associated Press did bring up the possible link (above), the NYTimes mentioned the possibility, and apocalypse maven Mike Davis discussed the possible link to factory farms in a backgrounder for The Guardian:

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." The commission also warned that
promiscuous antibiotic use in hog factories (cheaper than humane
environments) was sponsoring the rise of resistant staph infections,
while sewage spills were producing outbreaks of E coli and pfiesteria
(the protozoan that has killed 1bn fish in Carolina estuaries and made
ill dozens of fishermen).

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.

Yet the plodding nature of conventional news coverage seems to allow discussion of cause only on the editorial pages, as in an excellent op-ed piece in today's Los Angeles Times by Wendy Orent, who has written books on the subject of pandemics:

So why are some of the Mexico strains so lethal? The answer may lie in
the virus' possible origin: a giant Veracruz pig farm that raises
almost a million pigs a year. According to Devlin Kuyek of GRAIN, an
environmental organization, reports have been coming in for months of
the appalling conditions in the Perote Valley where the farm is
located. Locals report a fearful stench, hosts of flies and, since
December 2008, serious respiratory disease that sickened 60% of the
community. One of those cases, a 5-year-old boy who has since
recovered, had the H1N1 swine flu virus. Other samples have
disappeared, Kuyek says, and most people were never tested.

Influenzas that have their origins in huge, crowded animal farms are
often more virulent than other flu strains. Germs that kill their hosts
quickly tend not to thrive; their hosts die before there is time to
pass the virus on. But on crowded farms, the next snout is an inch
away, and even virulent strains can gain a foothold. It is the same
type of conditions that produced deadly avian influenza in giant
poultry farms in Asia over the last 10 years.

Can't we open our minds to the possibility of such a link without leaping to a conclusion?

Apparently not. But it is a good reason to revisit The Meatrix: Revolting (the sequel):


2 thoughts on “Swine Flu Exposes Media Weakness

  1. Dear Kit: This is the only site where I’ve seen this information. As usual, you’re way ahead of the curve. As far as “opening our minds to the possibility of such a link without leaping to a conclusion,” I think that’s quite simple. Whether the Veracruz ginomorous pig factory farm actually turns out to be the cause, the place is obviously a dangerous disaster waiting to happen. I wonder who actually owns it.


  2. Well, I am a reporter, but not on the scene in Mexico, nor versed in the intricacies of virus structure.

    But New Scientist has a reporter who is versed in the latter, and reports that variations on the infamous “new” swine flu actually have been circulating in American factory farms for a decade or more. Google “Swine Flu the Predictable Pandemic” + New Scientist and you’ll see what I mean.


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