Editorial: It's not the pigs, stupid!

Rania Al Malky
9 Min Read

CAIRO: Egypt’s decision to cull its entire population of pigs is not only a misguided effort to contain swine flu, but also reflects the haphazard, panic-driven decision-making process that’s endemic to this country.

First of all, there are no pigs sneezing in Mexico. According to a World Health Organization release, when the outbreak was first detected and publicized in Mexico a week ago, there was no mention whatsoever of the appearance of the virus in swine.

The organization was responding to the outbreak of human cases of swine influenza A (H1N1) in order to avert the threat of an influenza pandemic among humans, not among pigs.

According to an Associated Press report, unlike bird flu, where the H5N1 strain that spread to humans was widespread in bird populations and officials worried about people’s exposure to infected birds, WHO says there is no similar concern about pigs – and no evidence that people have contracted swine flu by eating pork or handling pigs. “There is no association that we’ve found between pigs and the disease in humans, WHO spokesman Dick Thompson said.

The reason why it’s called swine influenza is because it is caused by a strain of the influenza virus that is endemic in pigs. However, the strain causing the recent outbreak in humans is thought to be something entirely novel, derived from one strain of human flu virus, one strain of avian flu virus and two separate stains of swine flu virus. It is as yet unknown how the virus mutated to ease its spread from human to human.

The World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), an intergovernmental organization responsible for improving animal health worldwide, strongly counseled against the culling of pigs in the current situation.

In an April 30 release, it announced that scientific information now available to the OIE and partner organizations indicates that the A/H1N1 influenza virus is being transmitted amongst humans; there is no evidence of infection in pigs, nor of humans acquiring infection directly from pigs.

It also noted, as did the WHO and the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization, that swine flu has not been shown to be transmissible to people through eating pig meat or other products derived from pigs, adding that culling will not help guard against public or animal health risks. Instead, it advised focusing efforts on appropriate disease surveillance and strengthening the general biosecurity measures applied at premises where pigs are handled and slaughtered.

Investigations are underway to uncover the pathogenicity (if any) of the circulating virus for animals and, once known, it will be the subject of a further communication from the OIE.

Even in Mexico, which has the highest number of fatalities (12 at time of press) and confirmed cases of the virus in humans (300), the only pig-related precautionary measure was ordering the closure of popular streetside taco stands for a week, until further evidence is revealed.

Mexico’s Agriculture Department said that its inspectors found no sign of swine flu among pigs around the farm in Veracruz, home to the very first case (a 4-year-old boy) and that no infected pigs have been found yet anywhere in Mexico.

So unless the Mexican government, the WHO, the FAO and the OIE are all part of an insidious conspiracy to protect the global swine-related trade industry, then there is no need to order the culling of pigs in Egypt, which lies over 6,500 nautical miles across the Atlantic from Mexico where no pigs have been infected.

True that according to a Reuters article published last week that a study conducted by the World Bank in 2008 estimated that a major swine flu pandemic could cost $3 trillion and cause worldwide gross domestic product (GDP) to plummet almost 5 percent, this is still a reference to the impact of the spread of the virus among humans.

So in Egypt, the argument that pig breeders, many of whom are also garbage collectors that have regular access to many Egyptian homes and are thus potential transmitters of the virus, has no basis in scientific reality so far.

Unlike popular belief, the situation with swine flu in Egypt is fundamentally different from the case of bird flu, since it is common for Egyptian villagers (and even city dwellers) to raise poultry on rooftops to supplement their paltry incomes.

And because it was scientifically confirmed that the avian flu virus has mutated to a form that can be communicated directly from birds to people, it made sense that when the virus first appeared in Egypt in February 2006, that millions of birds – some reports put the number at 25 million – were culled, and millions of pounds were spent on awareness public health campaigns.

From experience, we learnt that these measures have not been full-proof, with Egypt leading the number of bird flu human fatalities of 26 outside Asia, three of which were reported consecutively over the past two weeks.

Because the government had not offered any form of compensation, many small poultry farmers simply ignored the warnings and continued their unhygienic practices, afraid of losing their only source of livelihood.

Little seems to have changed in the approach to the swine flu scare. On the contrary, the government seems to be using the threat of a pandemic to kill two birds with one stone: first to silence critics who constantly attack the shaky public health system and the government’s systematic failure to respond to crises (whether it’s a fire, a train accident or a flu outbreak); and second to finally wipe out the ad hoc pig farms in underprivileged residential areas.

Like everyone, I too would like to see these disease-infested areas housing people, pigs and mountains of waste to feed them, all cleaned out, but wouldn’t it have made more sense to use this opportunity to relocate the farms, instead of hanging the pig breeders out to dry?

As usual there were conflicting reports on whether the breeders would be compensated. Some officials said that the pigs will be slaughtered, the pork meat will be stocked up in government freezers and eventually sold, and so there was no need for compensation; while others claimed that half a billion dollars were allocated for compensation, $180 per head. This raises another concern over whether the government has the facilities to store all that meat, or even to carry out the mass slaughters with a minimum measure of hygiene to avert an even worse disaster.

Wouldn’t it have been better use of funds to build new pig farms away from the city that abide by international health standards and to support the breeders with extra cash to provide real fodder instead of feeding their pigs garbage?

It’s no surprise that clashes have broken out as the government swiftly began to carry out its plan. In Khanka, 25 km north of Cairo, for instance, breeders reportedly set up road blocks and pelted veterinary services vehicles with stones as they approached them.

The Egyptian government still hasn’t got it right. The swine flu threat has reinforced its image as a government of quick fixes and hasty reactions, not one to plan ahead and take initiative.

Rania Al Malky is Chief Editor of Daily News Egypt.

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