It’s been impossible to ignore the media hysteria over the past few days in response to reported outbreaks of the newest variant of the influenza virus. The talking heads and frantic graphic displays on television news have raised the fine art of 24 hour video fear mongering to new levels.
While there is certainly some cause for concern over the latest reports, placing this information in a realistic context is apparently beyond the capabilities of most of these so-called “news” organizations. And while they’re busy scaring the crap out you, they are ignoring aspects of this story that should merit further investigation.
“Swine” flu has been documented as occurring in humans since 1988, according to the Center for Disease Control. While the cases of this newest virus occurring in the US have thus far been relatively mild, the regular, garden-variety influenza was responsible for over 35,000 deaths last year. As you see and hear the television hysteria about swine flu, it might also be worthwhile to point out that, in 2006, there were 13,000 documented domestic cases of tuberculosis and 644 deaths from that disease.
Scientists and health care authorities are concerned because the latest outbreaks are being caused by a hybrid variant that draws genetic material from four difference sources: avian and swine viruses from North America, a swine flu strain normally found in Asia and a human influenza strain. Researchers have long feared that a hybrid flu strain could induce a pandemic. However, despite raising the “threat level”, the World Health Organization and the CDC have issued no warnings that would indicate a pandemic is imminent.
The mighty pundits of the Right, however, have been all over this story, using the media induced frenzy to blame illegal immigrants and even President Obama’s recent trip to Mexico for the flu’s spread to the US. Conservative radio talk show host Michael Savage told his audience, “Make no mistake about it: Illegal aliens are the carriers of the new strain of human-swine avian from Mexico.”
Talk radio’s Neal Boortz (and others) has been spreading speculation that the latest outbreak may actually be a bio-terrorism attack, “What better way to sneak a virus into this country than give it to the Mexicans? I mean, one out every 10 people born in Mexico is already living up here, and the rest are trying to get here.”
The San Diego Union Tribune, while decrying the immigrant bashing, seized the opportunity to be critical of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, while ignoring the fact that the position of Health and Human Services Secretary remained unfilled for many months, thanks to GOP opposition based on the nominee’s support for abortion rights.
Meanwhile, questions relating to how the current outbreak started have been under-reported in the media. Mexican newspapers have been running stories pointing to a pig farming operation partially owned by meat megalith Smithfield as the original source of the infections. Residents in La Gloria, a town of 3,000 located in Veracruz State, are blaming widespread respiratory infections caused by contamination spread by pig waste on a factory farm located five miles upwind. Dating back to February, 1600 villagers have been treated for symptoms including fever, severe coughs and large amounts of phlegm. Company officials deny any connection with the outbreak, but local health officials have initiated an epidemiological investigation focusing on any cases exhibiting symptoms since March 10th.
Smithfield has expanded its overseas operations in recent years in the wake of increasing domestic regulation aimed at curbing toxic pollutants that are by-products of its industrial farming operations. A 2006 story in Rolling Stone described a Smithfield North Carolina operation:
A lot of pig shit is one thing; a lot of highly toxic pig shit is another. The excrement of Smithfield hogs is hardly even pig shit: On a continuum of pollutants, it is probably closer to radioactive waste than to organic manure. The reason it is so toxic is Smithfield‘s efficiency. The company produces 6 billion pounds of packaged pork each year. That’s a remarkable achievement, a prolificacy unimagined only two decades ago, and the only way to do it is to raise pigs in astonishing, unprecedented concentrations.
Last year a Pew Research Center commission on industrial farm animal production reported on the dangers involved:
“the continual cycling of viruses…in large herds or flocks (will) increase opportunities for the generation of novel viruses through mutation or recombinant events that could result in more efficient human to human transmission.”
The commission also claimed that they had been systemically obstructed in their research efforts by corporations, including threats to withhold funding. Previous flu pandemics dating back to 1918 have been traced to large numbers of people being in proximity to birds and pigs. Certainly the relationship between industrial animal production and this current outbreak merits further investigation.
The stimulus bill passed back in February originally contained language that would have allocated either $420 million (House bill) or $870 million (Senate bill) that could be used for “the development and purchase of vaccine, antivirals, necessary medical supplies, diagnostics and other surveillance tools” for pandemic influenza. The funding could also be used for the construction or renovation of private facilities producing vaccines. But these monies failed to make it past Republican Senator Susan Collins, who deemed it unnecessary pork. Such funding could have been available for production of the newly discovered anti-bodies that could lead to far more effective antiviral drugs than Tamiflu and others currently on the market.
Finally, just in time for supposedly upcoming pandemic, a conservative group is launching a $1 million ad buy this week designed to tap into fears about the U.S. moving toward a nationalized system of health care. Conservatives for Patient Rights will run a month of 60-second ads on CNN and Fox News that feature doctors from Britain and Canada describing the pitfalls of their nations’ health care.
Yet another reason we’re supposed to be afraid of getting sick.