Tag Archives: avian flu

Factory Farm Behind the Swine Flu Outbreak

It looks like the center of the swineflu outbreak in Mexico may well end up being a filthy pig slaughter operation run by a subsidiary of the Virginia-based Smithfield Foods, so well known for its hams. The company denies there is anything wrong with its operations. But Tom Philpott of Grist Magazine has been writing about the connection, and his most recent article is well worth reading. He notes:

The disease emerged as early as February and infected 60 percent of the town’s 1,800 inhabitants, according to the widely cited blog Biosurveillance, run by the U.S. disease-tracking consultancy Veratract (which claims the CDC, the World Health Organization, and the Pan-American Health Organization as clients). Three children died during the outbreak, Veratract reports. Residents blamed the Granjas Carroll confinements for the outbreak; and local authorities evidently agreed. “Health workers soon intervened, sealing off the town and spraying chemicals to kill the flies [which grew in swarms on Granjas Caroll’s manure lagoons] that were reportedly swarming through people’s homes,” according to a Monday account in the Guardian.

Some commentators say flies on manure piles are not possible vectors for the flu, but Philpott writes that he “recently got my hands on a paper by an international team of scientists—including Jay Graham and Ellen Silbergeld of Johns Hopkins—published in the May-June 2008 Public Health Reports. The paper, “The Animal-Human Interface and Infectious Disease in Industrial Food Animal Production: Rethinking Biosecurity and Biocontainment,” points to a concrete example of flies acting as a flu vector” [at a Japanese poultry farm in 2004]. Philpott continues:

The public-health scientific community has been sounding the alarm for years about the potential for bio-catastrophe brewing on industrial animal farms. The Graham/Sibergeld paper crystallizes those concerns. I’ll tease out a few key themes.

Untreated manure in lagoons, pointed to by La Gloria residents as a health hazard, can indeed contain flu strains….

Regulatory regimes, in the U.S. and elsewhere, tend to be lax. Sanitary laws demand the treatment of human sewage; animal waste is a different story….

The amount of untreated waste allowed to fester in CAFOs [concentrated animal feeding operations–i.e. factory farms] globally is stunning….

And of course, this vast amount of manure is highly concentrated geographically. For example, the bulk of pork consumed in the United States comes from a handful of counties in Iowa and North Carolina. In Mexico, the Perote region of Vera Cruz carries the burden of intensive hog production. The relatively few workers who staff these industrial farms, as well as the residents who live nearby, are vulnerable to the pathogens—and can carry them to far-flung populations.

The paper’s authors note the significance of their findings to the avian flu threat–but it all applies equally well to our current swine flu crisis.

Understanding interactions between animals and humans is critical in preventing outbreaks of zoonotic disease. This is particularly important for avian influenza. Food animal production has been transformed since the 1918 influenza pandemic. Poultry and swine production have changed from small-scale methods to industrial-scale operations. There is substantial evidence of pathogen movement between and among these industrial facilities, release to the external environment, and exposure to farm workers, which challenges the assumption that modern poultry production is more biosecure and biocontained as compared with backyard or small holder operations in preventing introduction and release of pathogens….Data suggest that successful strategies to prevent or mitigate the emergence of pandemic avian influenza must consider risk factors specific to modern industrialized food animal production.

Swine Flu Deja Vu–and SNAFU

The more we learn about the current swine flu outbreak, the more it all begins to sound like what happened in 2005, when the world faced a possible pandemic of avian flu. But with the exception of stocking up on Tamiflu, most governments seem to have taken little meaningful action in response to the bird flu scare, and learned few lessons.

In certain ways, the world’s experience with Avian flu may actually have rendered it less, rather than more prepared for a new outbreak. The Daily Telegraph (UK) reported earlier this week on a meeting of scientists held in Austria back in February, before the swine flu had surfaced. There, Harvard professor Thomas Monath warned that because so much attention had been focused on bird flu, if another strain popped up, “we would be screwed.” The Telegraph’s medical editor writes:

He warned vaccine manufacturing capacity is insufficient, meaning that if a pandemic strain of flu emerged now it would be impossible to make enough for the world’s population in time.

The scientific community had become “complacent” about a new flu pandemic because the avian influenza strain H5N1 has been around for 13 years without spreading around the world.

Prof Monath said: “If it’s a new strain of flu it will be nine months to a year before we have got really good geared up vaccine production. We will rely on antiviral drugs first and then it is a crash effort to make a vaccine. In the meantime there will be clearly an emerging uncontained problem,” he said.

A second unlearned lesson has to do with the way we treat our livestock. Here, again, explicit warnings have been ignored. In an excellent piece on Huffington Post, David Kirby outlines the links among the virulent new flu strains and “confined animal feeding operations” (CAFOs), otherwise known as factory farms, where tens of thousands of animals live packed together in poorly ventilated sheds, standing (and breathing) in their own excrement.

Kirby cites a 2008 report by the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, which “included research on emerging forms of avian-swine-human influenza viruses.” The report warned of a scenario much like one that has emerged in Mexico, where “patient zero” is thought to be a boy living in a rural hamlet near a factory hog farm owned by Smithfield Foods:

The continual cycling of swine influenza viruses and other animal pathogens in large herds or flocks provides increased opportunity for the generation of novel viruses through mutation or recombinant events that could result in more efficient human-to-human transmission of these viruses. In addition, agricultural workers serve as a bridging population between their communities and the animals in large confinement facilities. This bridging increases the risk of novel virus generation in that human viruses may enter the herds or flocks and adapt to the animals.

The Humane Society, which tracks factory farming because of the cruel conditions in which these animals live, also points out that the present H1N1 strain “is not the first triple hybrid human/bird/pig flu virus to be discovered.” It cites a previous outbreak on a North Carolina factory farm in 1998, and reports:

Dr. Robert Webster, one of the world’s leading experts of flu virus evolution, blames the emergence of the 1998 virus on the “recently evolving intensive farming practice in the USA, of raising pigs and poultry in adjacent sheds with the same staff,” a practice he calls “unsound.”  “Within the swine population, we now have a mammalian-adapted virus that is extremely promiscuous,” explained another molecular virologist at the time, referring to the virus’s proclivity to continue to snatch up genes from human flu viruses. “We could end up with a dangerous virus.” This may indeed be what we are now facing.

The conditions in which livestock–and the humans who tend them–live was an issue in the 2005 avian flu scare, as well. In November 2005, I wrote in the Village Voice:

While developed countries race to lay in supplies of antiviral drugs, there is little interest in the animals themselves and in animal-human interaction where flu can begin and spread. The WHO and Food and Agriculture Organization have only 40 veterinarians between them. “Reducing human exposure requires education about handling poultry and a fundamental change in cultural attitudes towards human- animal interactions and husbandry in many parts of the world,” writes The Lancet, the British medical journal. “In some African countries, people sleep in the same places as poultry. In southeast Asia, ‘wet markets,’ where live poultry are traded and slaughtered on the spot, pose a risk of human transmission. And in Central Asia and Eastern Europe, hunting of wild birds may have played a major part in the spread of avian influenza.


Swine Flu: Who Will Bring Home the Bacon?

As the world gears up once again for a flu pandemic that may or may not arrive (it actually seems more likely this piggiestime), we might want to remember some of the lessons of the last flu scare. One of these is that there are winners as well as losers in every high-profile outbreak of infectious disease. First and foremost among them, of course, is Big Pharma, which can always be counted on to have its hand out wherever human misery presents an opportunity to rake in some cash.

In 2005, I reported on the bird flu scare for the Village Voice in a piece called “Capitalizing on the Flu.”  We can realistically hope that our current federal government will improve upon the bungled effort made by the Bush Administration to prepare for the onslaught of avian flu—which fortunately didn’t materialize. But certain aspects of the crisis are likely to be repeated, and profiteers will waste no time in gathering at the trough.

Then, as now, one of the few effective antidotes was a drug called Tamiflu. But this silver bullet came with side effects, as well as a high price tag. As I reported in 2005:

With no vaccine in sight, the U.S. government, along with others, is belatedly stocking up on Tamiflu, a drug that supposedly offers some defense against bird flu. But last week Japanese newspapers told how children who were administered Tamiflu went mad and tried to kill themselves by jumping out of windows. In a cautionary statement the FDA noted 12 deaths among children, and said there are reports of psychiatric disturbances, including hallucinations, along with heart and lung disorders. Roche, the manufacturer, is quoted by the BBC as stating that the rate of deaths and psychiatric problems is no higher among those taking its medication than among those with flu. The company is increasing Tamiflu production to 300 million doses a year to meet demand.

There are other reasons people are leery of Tamiflu. Given the rip-offs in Iraq and after the hurricanes, people are understandably interested in knowing just who is going to get rich off the plague. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, himself former CEO of drug company Searle, currently owns stock in the one company that owns Tamiflu patents—to the tune of at least $18 million. Rumsfeld says he understands why people might question his holdings, but selling them would raise even more questions. So he is hanging on to what he’s got.

A report by Citicorp at the time described which pharmaceutical manufacturers and other comapnies stood to make money:

Winners could include drug makers such as Gilead Sciences, Roche, GlaxoSmithKline, and Sanofi-Aventis. Other possible winners are hospital chains such as Rhoen Klinikum, cleaning-products makers such as Henkel, Ecolab, and Clorox, as well as home entertainment companies such as Blockbuster and Nintendo….

In order for the pharmaceutical companies to profit from making flu vaccine in the administration’s $7.1 billion pandemic flu plan, Bush now is proposing to ban liability suits against them except in cases of willful misconduct. As for those injured by a flu vaccine, possible lawsuits remain an open question….

With a worldwide market estimated at more than $1 billion, there’s big money in a flu plague. Kimberly-Clark’s Chinese subsidiary is already ramping up manufacture of new lines of medical masks, wipes, and hand-washing liquids, according to Business Week, with consulting firms Kroll and Booz Allen Hamilton selling flu preparedness advice to companies and governments. “Crisis is an opportunity as long as you see it first,” Pitney Bowes’s Christian Crews tells the magazine.

Of course, that was then, and this is now. In the coming days we’re bound to discover who’s pulling in the pork this time. But even before the U.S. markets opened this morning, early indications weren’t hard to find: “Fears of a potential pandemic are bringing down stock markets around the world today,” public radio’s “Marketplace” reports from London, “but two big pharmaceutical companies are getting a boost from the news”:

Shares in Switzerland’s leading drug maker, Roche, are up nearly 4 percent this morning. The company says it’s scaling up production of Tamiflu. The drug’s been show to be an effective vaccine against the virus.

In the U.K., GlaxoSmithKline, which manufacturers its own vaccine against deadly flu viruses, is also gaining in the markets. Glaxo’s drug is called Relenza….

Both drug makers have been approached by the World Health Organization about their readiness to deploy stocks in the case of a pandemic. Roche says it stands ready with 3 million treatments, but warned further production could take up to eight months.