Greed drives swine-flu epidemic

I’ve been surprised at the degree of irresponsible media reporting on the swine flu epidemic.

It was unlikely from the outset that New Zealanders were under deadly threat as claimed. There were deaths in Mexico where the virus strain originated but all reports have shown most people experience very mild flu-like symptoms at worst. That could change if the virus mutates but the same can apply to any virus.

Nevertheless the media beat it into a frenzy. Promoting panic is a sure winner for newspaper sales and essential TV viewing so there was a vested interest in sensationalising the story.

After all it had all the hallmarks of a great story. Death out of the blue from an unseen killer is naturally frightening. If Alfred Hitchcock had made a film about a viral attack he would have been onto a winner. And what a great name – swine flu. Hollywood couldn’t have done better.

A week later and it’s clear it was a beat-up. More New Zealanders will die of the usual strains of influenza this winter than those with swine flu symptoms we’ve seen so far.

Despite all this, irrational behaviour seems to have spread faster than the virus. Pigs are being slaughtered in Egypt, Mexican travellers are being randomly put in quarantine in various countries and a couple of Auckland hotels have refused to take in unwell tourists.

This is not to say there isn’t the potential for a pandemic such as the world saw in 1919 with the so-called Spanish flu outbreak which killed tens of millions worldwide. With air travel so widespread now the spread of such an infection would be more rapid and potentially much more devastating were a viral strain with similar deadly potential to emerge.

How likely is such an event in the near future?

It seems the answer is a resounding yes with the focus less on “if” and more a matter of “when”. So why not some in depth reporting to follow up the over-heated swine flu story?

With the financial crisis there were voices raised warning of the serious dangers at every step taken in the deregulation of financial markets in the past 20 years. Similarly there have been many voices sounding in recent years of the dangers of “greed-driven” meat production and its propensity to produce the very virus strains we see in so-called swine flu.

The swine flu virus is a combination of bird, pig and human viruses and it isn’t the first time such a strain has emerged. In 1998 a similar combination developed in an industrial pig farm in North Carolina and spread across the US. Intensive farming practices were blamed at the time where pigs and birds were farmed in cramped conditions, in sheds which were side by side and tended by the same human staff.

A study published by the University of Iowa College of Public Health in November 2005 investigated the risks of viruses jumping from animals to people. It pointed out that family farms were being replaced by industrial farms. In the US in 1965 there were more than a million farmers with an average of 50 pigs each but by 2005 there were 50,000 farmers with an average of 900 pigs each. The numbers of farmers continues to decrease while the number of pigs continues to increase. Some pig farms now have tens or even hundreds of thousands of pigs living in overcrowded, inhumane conditions.

In the new industrial farms the Iowa study argued that “the potential for animal-to-animal transmission will be much greater than on a traditional farm because of the pigs’ crowding resulting in prolonged and more frequent contact”.

“In addition, virus-laden secretions from pigs may be more concentrated, and reductions in ventilation and sunshine exposure may prolong viral viability.”

Workers on these farms are most at risk. “They may serve as a conduit for a novel virus to move from swine to man or from man to swine,” the study said and warned this could initiate epidemics by mixing viral strains which would then trigger a pandemic.

It isn’t certain at this point but it seems the latest outbreak originated in an industrial pig-farming area east of Mexico City.

So while we have been bombarded with all the drama of the outbreak the apparent cause has received scant attention.

Wouldn’t it be great if Health Minister Tony Ryall announced New Zealand support for an investigation into the cause of the outbreak instead of planning to spend more large sums preparing for the next epidemic?