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Swine Flu: The real pandemic

By Sunita Narain
Last updated on: May 22, 2009 13:49 IST
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The influenza A (H1N1) virus is not transmitted to humans by eating pork -- that much is now known and said. But what are the origins of this virus, which is winging across our air-travel interdependent world? Why is this question never asked?

Why are the big doctors of our world looking for a vaccine for all kinds of influenza without checking on what makes us so susceptible to pandemics, year after year? Is there something more to the current contagion?

It is now increasingly understood that the current pandemic is linked to the way we produce food -- in factory farms, via vertically-integrated business. Experts say the global food industry, like the global banking industry, is too big and out of control. It needs to be fixed.

Take swine flu -- now renamed. We know it started in La Gloria, a little town in Mexico. We know a young boy suffering from fever in March became the first confirmed victim of the current outbreak, which, even as I write, has reached India.

What is not said is this ill-fated town is right next to one of Mexico's biggest hog factories, owned by the world's largest pig processor, Smithfield Foods. What is also not said is that people in this town have repeatedly protested against the food giant for water pollution, terrible stench and waste dumping.

Nothing happened then. Nothing is happening now. Smithfield has done what all biggies do when nearly caught: Deny any wrong-doing and claim 'their science' and 'their tests' show that their herds -- always kept in pristine conditions -- are just fine.

Simultaneously, all the food giants have ganged up to ensure the World Health Organization changes the name of the contagion and exhorts people to eat more pork, manufactured in their mega-swine factories. Business as usual.

There is more to swine flu than the mere location of the factory near its epicentre.

For instance, virologists at the US-based Centre for Disease Control have found, after genetic fingerprinting, the strain of this swine flu is the same as first identified on industrial pig farms in North Carolina.

This American state has the most-dense pig population in North America; with such a massive concentration of farm animals, it is feared, viruses can run the evolutionary track -- jumping and reassorting between species -- at an unprecedented speed.

It is this toxic debt of industrial livestock farming that lawyer Robert F Kennedy Jr, son of the legendary Kennedy, investigated to his peril.

Kennedy's clients were the fishermen of Neuse river in North Carolina, who in 1991 lost their livelihood because of fish deaths caused by a mysterious Pfiesteria outbreak. Research led investigators to the hog factories: Millions of litres of waste, mixed with heavy metals, antibiotics, hormones, deadly biocides, and viruses and microbes.

The power of the hog barons, Kennedy writes, was legendary. They 'persuaded' legislators in Missouri and Illinois to make it a crime to photograph farm animals; 13 states introduced veggie libel laws, making it illegal to criticise food from factories; Kennedy was personally targeted and vilified.

It is the scale of this business and its power, which should worry us. Smithfield slaughtered some 26 million pigs and had a turnover of $11.4 billion in 2006. It also made a profit of over $500 million that year and expanded madly across the world.

Just last week, The New York Times published a devastating tale of how the same company was using subsidies and public diplomacy to take over family pig farms in Romania and Poland. The report says that while local residents say Smithfield is injecting waste into the soil, the stench is overwhelming. The company blames it and a recent spate of pig deaths on a heat wave.

When avian flu first hit the world, some made the same connection -- intensive poultry factories were linked to the flu the world caught. But this was an equally inconvenient truth. It was easier to blame wild birds with no defenders in agribusiness, than birds produced in poultry factory farms.

The current H1N1 strain is high on the evolutionary ladder. In 1998, when there was an outbreak of swine flu in North Carolina, it was a triple hybrid -- containing gene segments from bird, human and swine -- and this spread across the pig herds of the integrated world.

Now it has mutated further. It is believed, sometime in March, the common flu virus infecting a human being got mixed with the hybrid, creating an altogether new human-animal virus. This one, many believe, is a mild version; just wait as it evolves.

If not chicken, pigs will have their revenge. And the real pandemic will remain untreated, as usual.

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Sunita Narain
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