Making Sense of Swine Flu

In the last few years the Ecologist has written extensively on the flu – both the garden variety that strikes us on an annual basis and the wider threat of avian influenza, H5N1.

The latest H1N1 virus is somewhat more worrying than H5N1 because of the greater ease with which swine viruses can be passed from pig to human, and thereafter from human to human. Pigs are very efficient vectors for human disease, as the recent Ecologist Film Unit documentary short, Sick as a Pig, which details the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria amongst pig farmers, details shows so graphically. (The accompanying article is here.)

Understanding this, however, does not tackle the actual root of the problem.

The Ecologist’s position on the current swine flu outbreak is much as it was when the first reports of avian influenza surfaced in 2006 (see here). Until government and public health officials look at the entire picture of the aetiology of the disease they will not be able to contain this outbreak, or prevent similar, future outbreaks.

It is disappointing that, so far, very little of the press coverage has focused on the role of factory farming in the genesis of this virus. Animals kept in industrial conditions, crowded into small pens next to each other, fed unnatural diets, and kept ‘healthy’ with a regime of veterinary drugs, will have greatly weakened immune systems and will effectively act as living Petri dishes in which this virus and others may combine and recombine to become unique strains that, in theory, can also be uniquely virulent.

Should an intermediary vector be involved, such as the flies that reproduce in the pig faeces which quickly builds up on the grounds around large hog raising facilities, this will make the swift spread of the disease to humans much more likely. There are a number of these types of facilities in the Mexican state of Vera Cruz, where the outbreak is believed to have originated.

As for human vulnerability, while H1N1 initially appears to have a high mortality rate in humans, this does not take into account several important factors, primary amongst which is the number of ‘mild’ human cases of H1N1 that may have escaped the monitoring agencies’ attention. These may number in the thousands, greatly reducing the actual human mortality from the disease.

Secondly, while there have been deaths from this flu – or rather from its complications, as there are with any flu – in the media frenzy of the last several days no one seems to have asked the vital question: who is most at risk of dying from H1N1?

A healthy, well-fed middle class individual is unlikely to succumb. A poverty stricken individual, perhaps working on an industrial hog farm, or who may be undernourished and living in conditions which put them at a greater disadvantage, immunologically speaking, may well be at greater risk of complications such as pneumonia and therefore of death.

While it is believed that the H1N1 strain responds well to anti-virals like Tamiflu and Relenza, the catch is you need to start taking these drugs within two days of the start of the illness, when many people may not necessarily be able to tell if they have a cold or the flu.

There are many unknowns about this current outbreak. Should the virus travel around the world it may well mutate. But how it will mutate is completely unpredictable. It may, for instance, become easier to pass on from human to human, but milder. It may become harder to pass on from human to human, but more virulent. It may vanish altogether over the summer.

What a public already stressed by economic and environmental gloom don’t need is to have the flame of a collective panic and anxiety about life in general fanned by out-of-proportion reports about a pandemic, when all we appear to have so far is a mild self-limiting outbreak that may disappear by itself.

The most productive thing the great British ‘worried well’ can do right now – apart, perhaps, from not travelling to Mexico or taking any day trips to industrial pig farms – is to remember to wash their hands, eat sensibly, sleep well. Given the well documented deleterious effects of stress and anxiety on human immune function it may also be wise to, if not cut out, then at least cut back on their daily diet of shock-horror news reports.

Pat Thomas is the editor of the Ecologist

Previous Ecologist articles on human and animal influenza:

Ten things you didn't know about bird flu

Pandemic prevention

The flu vaccine - a shot in the dark?



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