Thursday, April 30, 2009

Do Only Swine Catch Swine Flu?

Pigs confined in gestation cages. (Photo: Farm Sanctuary on Flickr)

The bad news is that swine flu does not attack only the human porcine; but, will infect anyone – the good news is that the outbreak is not as severe as the media would have us believe. (Follow the spread of swine flu here.)

However, this does not mean that we should take this pandemic seriously. Swine flu can be more severe than your garden-variety flu. Apparently, it can manifest itself with a range of symptoms from mild to very severe.

The root of swine flu has yet to be confirmed, but theories abound. The Wall Street Journal has this to say: the swine flu that has:
sickened hundreds more is still a mystery contagion. But this much is known: The virus is unusually made up of genetic material from avian, pig and human viruses; it can transmit from person to person; and in many people, it only triggers mild symptoms seen in garden-variety influenza.

The finger is being pointed at several questionable agribusiness practices – namely “confined animal feeding operations” and the overuse of antibiotics in the pork industry.

The overuse of antibiotics has long been blamed for creating “superbugs” that not only are of superior virulence; they are now antibiotic-resistant. These bacterial "superbugs" include:

...methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA, pronounced “mersa”), campylobacter, drug-resistant E. coli and salmonella. Though MRSA has cropped up in hospitals since the 1990s, there have been more recent strains cropping up in on hog-farming operations.

Nicholas Kristof’s insightful New York Times column cites these alarming statistics:
- A small Dutch study found Dutch pig farmers to be 760 times more likely to carry MRSA, without necessarily showing symptoms. Scientific American reports that this MRSA strain was also found in 12 percent of Dutch retail pork samples.
- This same strain of MRSA has also been found in the United States: according to a new study by University of Iowa epidemiologist Tara Smith, 45 percent of pig farmers and 49 percent of the hogs tested carried MRSA.
- other research by Peter Davies of the University of Minnesota found that 25 percent to 39 percent of American hogs carry MRSA.

Many scientists have long suspected that the link between the antibiotic-resistant bacteria and the meat industry are the antibiotics that are being pumped into these animals to allow chronic overcrowding and poor care to continue. They have even gone so far as to speculate that these massive pig farming businesses could become incubators for super-pathogens that are able to quickly spread becoming a dreaded pandemic.

According to a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists, 70% of all antibiotics used in the US are going to healthy livestock; while, a 2008 peer-reviewed study by the Medical Clinics of North America concluded that antibiotics in livestock feed were “a major component” in the rise in antibiotic resistance.

“We don’t give antibiotics to healthy humans,” says Robert Martin, who led a Pew Commission investigating antibiotic use on industrial farms. “So why give them to healthy animals just so we can keep them in crowded and unsanitary conditions?”

Governments everywhere need to make stricter, more stringent guidelines coupled with adequate penalties for not maintaining the minimum standards necessary for the humane care, housing, treatment and health of our livestock. Maybe this outbreak of the swine flu will open eyes everywhere to the changes that must be made to agribusiness to keep us all safe.

After all, if we can’t trust one of our food sources, we have a bigger problem that the swine flu.

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