Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Speaking of the Flu...

After being bedridden with the flu over the weekend and taking it easy for an additional day (I engage in the practice of not rushing back to the daily grind prematurely because that tends to encourage a follow-up cold/flu), I am now feeling like my physical self has recovered most of its strength. My mental abilities, though, seem to be readjusting more slowly, hesitant to go back into productive mode.

That being said, I should be able to write a quick post about swine flu. Not H1N1, necessarily; I'm referring to the flu viruses that originate in pigs. It seems an author at Scientific American is worried that there isn't enough monitoring of pig health on American farms, mainly because the pork industry isn't interested in playing show-and-tell with its data. I don't know about you, but I only remember hiding things as a child when I was worried about getting in trouble. Suspicious, anyone?

It turns out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are informed when a human catches the flu off a pig but can't always investigate because the contagious animal is often... already taken care of by the time officials arrive on site. And although the US Department of Agriculture has come up with a fancy surveillance system, it hasn't been set up because the pork industry, surprise surprise, isn't excited about the government meddling in its affairs. I can just hear them now, "this is a free country; all we're asking for the is the right to treat these intelligent animals really poorly, sell their meat for the greatest profit possible, and unleash the next great flu pandemic on the world, without Uncle Sam looking over our shoulders".

Let's be clear: it's unlikely that pigs living on farms using friendly (read: sustainable and ethical) livestock management strategies are the ones getting sick all the time. Imagine instead the overcrowded pens in a factory farm environment where pigs are given a daily regimen of antibiotics to mitigate the spread of disease - except antibiotics don't prevent or cure the flu! Just as you and I are exposed to cold and flu viruses when working in a busy office, taking the subway during rush hour, or visiting an Apple store, and just as that exposure leads to illness when we are under stress, the pigs living in factory farms are pretty much destined to pass around viral diseases during the time they are housed there. Then it's just a matter of time before the workers who come into contact with the animals pick up the flu from them, provided the virus has mutated into a form that can affect humans. A bleak future, indeed.

So what do we do? 1. Vote with our dollars and boycott meat from factory farms, choosing animals products from sustainable farms instead. 2. Lobby our elected officials to introduce stricter regulations on these industries. 3. Support local farmers so that less meat is imported from foreign countries where the oversight is even poorer.

If you'd like to read the blog post that clued me in on this issue, click here.

Photo credits: H1N1 virus; pig pens.

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