Swine Flu: U.S. Declares Public Health Emergency

On Sunday, in the wake of 20 confirmed cases of Swine Flu, U.S. health officials declared a public health emergency and other “nations imposed travel bans or made plans to quarantine air travelers as confirmed cases also appeared in Mexico and Canada and suspect cases emerged elsewhere.”

The NY Times reports that  the top “global flu experts” are struggling to “predict how dangerous the new A (H1N1) swine flu strain would be as it became clear that they had too little information about Mexico’s outbreak — in particular how many cases had occurred in what is thought to be a month before the outbreak was detected, and whether the virus was mutating to be more lethal, or less.”

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, at a Washington news conference, called the emergency declaration “standard operating procedure,” and said she would rather call it a “declaration of emergency preparedness.”

“It’s like declaring one for a hurricane,” she said. “It means we can release funds and take other measures. The hurricane may not actually hit.”

American investigators said they expected more cases here, but noted that virtually all so far had been mild and urged Americans not to panic.

The U.S. has a “national stockpile of 50 million courses of antiflu drugs,” and one quarter of that will be released because of the emergency declaration which also frees up governemtn money for more antiviral drugs. 

Grist reported on Sunday morning, that the Swine Flu outbreak is linked to a Smithfield Foods factory farm in “Perote, Mexico, in the state of Vera Cruz, where the outbreak originated.” Smithfield Foods, Grist notes, is the “the world’s largest pork packer and hog producer.”

Smithfield’s operation in Mexico is “grouped under a Smithfield subsidiary called Granjas Carrol,” and they “raise 950,000 hogs per year, according to the company Web site—a level nearly equal to Smithfield’s total U.S. hog production.”

On Friday, the U.S. disease-tracking blog Biosurveillance published a timeline of the outbreak containing this nugget, dated April 6 (major tip of the hat to Paula Hay, who alerted me to the Smithfield link on the Comfood listserv and has written about it on her blog, Peak Oil Entrepreneur):

Residents [of Perote] believed the outbreak had been caused by contamination from pig breeding farms located in the area. They believed that the farms, operated by Granjas Carroll, polluted the atmosphere and local water bodies, which in turn led to the disease outbreak. According to residents, the company denied responsibility for the outbreak and attributed the cases to “flu.” However, a municipal health official stated that preliminary investigations indicated that the disease vector was a type of fly that reproduces in pig waste and that the outbreak was linked to the pig farms. It was unclear whether health officials had identified a suspected pathogen responsible for this outbreak.

From what I can tell, the possible link to Smithfield has not been reported in the U.S. press. Searches of Google News and the websites of the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal all came up empty.

Tom Philpott noted on Grist that the Mexican media was making the connection and according to the Mexico City daily La Jornada, the “Mexican health agency IMSS has acknowledged that the orginal carrier for the flu could be the “clouds of flies” that multiply in the Smithfield subsidiary’s manure lagoons.”

Anyone who read Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s Crimes Against Nature, should be familiar with the dangers that are associated with corporate hog farms. In an article published in The Nation in February 2004, Kennedy said (emphasis mine), “In a rigorous taxpayer-funded study, Zahn had identified bacteria that can make people sick–and that are resistant to antibiotics–in the air surrounding industrial-style hog farms. His studies proved that billions of these “superbugs” were traveling across property lines daily, endangering the health of neighbors and their herds.”

Kennedy also said that Zahn [Dr. James Zahn, a nationally respected microbiologist with the Agriculture Department’s research service], who he referred to, told him that “his supervisor at the USDA, under pressure from the hog industry, had ordered him not to publish his study and that he had been forced to cancel more than a dozen public appearances at local planning boards and county health commissions seeking information about health impacts of industry mega-farms.”

Rolling Stone Magazine also published a piece on hog farms in December 2006. The anti-science corporate farm loving crowd just got booted from power a few months ago. We should hopefully see some changes made in the way these companies do business.

Take the hog farms and add to that “an urbanizing planet  knitted by transportation” and you have the right mix for easily transmitting viruses like the Swine Flu.

Here’s some links of reference via DotEarth:

Pan American Health Organization flu page
World Health Organization swine flu page

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention swine flu page

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