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Swine flu: virus with an unfortunate name

With the latest worldwide health scare – this time not SARS or West Nile virus or avian influenza or mad cow, but swine flu (H1N1) – modern technology has proven its efficiency and curse. True, technology means responses and tracking of disease are quicker and those tasked with keeping it under control are better equipped. But despite technology’s ability to provide almost up-to-the-second information on outbreaks, too often that information is simply wrong.

The current swine flu situation, pushed relentlessly by a breathless media and propagated by a freaked-out, largely clueless public, is a case in point. Whether intentionally provided, or not, incorrect information has consequences. Even as government officials and scientists, livestock organizations and farmers repeatedly point out that H1N1 has been found in no pigs and pork isn’t a vector for the virus, pork markets have plummeted.

And is it any wonder? Incredibly, this is the first question asked of USDA secretary Tom Vilsack during an April 29 press conference held to highlight the first 100 days of the new administration: “I’m sorry to divert from the subject here, but I have a swine flu question. I just want to find out if you guys are comfortable with the amount of information you’re getting from Mexico in terms of the virus being found at hog farms? Are you doing any of your own investigations about whether pigs can spread the virus? What are you guys doing…”

Vilsack, clearly irritated, cut the reporter off and said he was “tempted to refuse to answer any questions (so) phrased. This is not a food-borne illness and isn’t necessarily related to swine. We’re very insistent on referring to this as the H1N1 virus. The consistent repeating of ‘swine’ makes a difference and is affecting and impacting markets negatively. We want to make sure we get over that.”

He continued: “This is not about pork products, about pork, about the safety of pork, about whether you can eat pork, or not. You can, it’s safe and we want to reinforce that message.

“As it relates to information, we are making a concerted effort to reach out to all 50 states, to state veterinarians, to state agriculture departments, to make sure there is constant surveillance so we can detect or determine any problem with our own swine herd.

“We’re working with our Canadian and Mexican partners to make sure there’s a full exchange of information. We’re also sending staff to Mexico -- as is the case with a number of agencies of the federal government – in order to ensure we get reliable, accurate information as quickly as possible.”

Asked what issues he’s faced on H1N1, Tom Troxel, Arkansas Extension professor of animal science, says “just the name ‘swine flu’ indicates that swine is the source of this influenza virus. That isn’t the case. This virus isn’t spread by food – something pork producers are certainly trying to explain to the public. There were some early reports that claimed otherwise and those were wrong.”

H1N1 is spreading through human-to-human contact. In fact, one of the main concerns of U.S. officials now is not allowing humans to infect the swine herd.

“I know Mid-South folks are being very vigilant about that,” says Robert Felsman, Arkansas Extension livestock specialist. “Nowadays, these diseases seem to be just a plane trip away from us. If anyone comes down with flu-like symptoms, they need to stay away from pork operations and get to the doctor to be checked out.

“The next few weeks will tell the tale. Will this be limited or turn into something major? Hopefully, it will peter out.”

One thing that makes Arkansas different from other states is “probably better than 98 percent – certainly more than 95 percent of the industry – are contract hogs with Tyson or other companies. Arkansas is just about out of independent producers.” Asked for comment, a Tyson Foods spokesman says “preliminary investigations have determined that none of the people infected with the hybrid flu had contact with hogs. …In fact, according to the World Organization for Animal Health in Paris, the virus has not been isolated in animals to date. Therefore, it is not justified to name this disease ‘swine influenza.’”

While Tyson Foods does have poultry operations in Mexico, it does not have pork-processing facilities or hog farms there. Regardless, no live pigs are shipped from Mexico into the United States.

Reached on April 28, Jennifer Greiner, a veterinarian and director of science and technology for the National Pork Producers Council, reiterated that “pork is safe. You can’t get swine influenza from eating pork. As long as pork products are handled and cooked properly, they’re safe to eat.

“The pork industry has asked producers to step up their biosecurity and that we do our due diligence when testing for swine influenzas as well as other diseases on our pig farms.”

The term “swine flu” is misleading, said Greiner. “The reason we’re caught up in calling it a ‘swine’ influenza is because H1N1 was first found in pigs. Whatever species the virus is first found in is how it’s labeled. H5N1 was ‘avian’ influenza because it was first found in birds.”

H1N1 has genes from swine influenza, an avian influenza and a human influenza. “It’s a real combination of a lot of viruses. That’s something that’s seen in influenza viruses” and isn’t uncommon.

How easy would it be for H1N1 to move from humans into swine?

“The pigs have a better chance of picking up an influenza virus from humans than (vice-versa). Part of our recommendation to producers is they step up biosecurity in their barns. They need to pay a little more attention” to things such as:

• International travel by workers.

“If a worker has been traveling internationally, ask where they were,” says Grenier.

• Swine operation employees going to work while ill. “If someone comes to work with flu symptoms – fever, aches and pains – send them home. That will stop them giving the pigs the influenza virus.”

Make no mistake: a pandemic is coming and governments are right to prepare. Viruses mutate and evolve and some day, when dark stars align just right, the globe will face a massive test.

But promoting – or even buying into – a near panic at the outset of every animal disease outbreak is counterproductive to a measured, rational approach. Pork producers, currently watching their markets tank over a virus with an unfortunate name, know this all too well.

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