03 May 2009

The Hype over 'Swine Flu'

For several days now the media are brimming with news, reports and scare stories about 'Swine Flu'. There is no newspaper that has not jumped onto this dangerous bandwagon, but predictably the red-top tabloids are making the most of it. Personally I do not even see them as newspapers in the true meaning of the word. They are just outrageous rags that keep the literate among those with lower IQs on their toes and provide them with material for their gossip and pub rants.

But 'Swine Flu' is literally everywhere now, in all papers, magazines and electronic media. Not one news bulletin on the BBC or on RTÉ without at least one item - often the first on the list - about this "dangerous pandemic".

The strange thing is though that 'Swine Flu' is actually not everywhere. Quite the opposite. Yesterday a spokesman of the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared clearly that it has "not been found anywhere outside North America".
This is in the first place Mexico, where the current strain of the virus was first detected, and the neighbouring USA, which has more than 12 million illegal Mexican residents (and many more who are by now legalised). Thus there is a constant interchange of people, and - apart from New York - all places where the virus has been registered in the USA have a border with Mexico.

There have been a number of cases in other countries, from Britain, Germany and Switzerland over Israel right around the globe to China. Even here in Ireland we caught up with the world again and have now our first - so far only 'suspected' - case of 'Swine Flu'.
But all the infected people outside Mexico and the USA are singular cases and have one element in common: They have all spent some time in Mexico recently.

It is too early to speculate why Mexican pigs are apparently more susceptible to influenza than the porcine population in other countries. With enough time scientists will most likely find the answer to that question. But one does not have to be a scientist to know that living conditions in Mexico are not very favourable (for humans and animals alike), except for the super-rich who do have enormous luxury available to them.
Most of the ordinary Mexicans live in appalling places. Their cities are overpopulated (the capital Mexico City alone has now more than 20 million residents), most of the villages have not been improved at all for at least a century, sanitation standards are poor, and the health service is only available to those who can pay for it.

In many places Mexican people and their animals live in close proximity to each other. They share the same spaces, drink the same water and mingle freely, in destitute villages and filthy slums alike. Such conditions are ideal breeding grounds for viruses and diseases of all kinds. Mexicans are affected by them all the time, and plenty of the poorer ones die without any mention of it in our media.

No, our news mongers and professional manipulators of reality only wake up when a virus dares to escape the abject squalor and poverty of an underdeveloped country and begins to threaten the likes of us. But then we get not only the news of actual events, no, we are buried under an avalanche of 'breaking news' and made-up stories that is totally out of proportion and has only two purposes: to sell more newspapers and to stir panic (which again leads to people buying more papers, because "they want to know").

Let us look at the facts with a clear mind and without any hysteria or panic. What is actually happening?

Doctors and vets in Mexico have registered a new strain of the influenza virus. Its official name - by the way - is not at all 'Swine Flu'. It is called A/Veracruz/2009 (H1N1). But as this is too simple and pragmatic for the sensationalist hacks, they have to come up with something more shocking. So instead of seeing A/2009 (H1N1) in headlines and news, we are alarmed by 'Swine Flu'.
Even in the best of times pigs never get a good press and their name is widely used as an insult. Their general image is of stupid and filthy omnivores, creatures we perceive as nothing else but sources of bacon and sausages.

Those of us who read books on Zoology instead of tabloid papers will know that this image is completely wrong. Pigs are in fact among the most advanced and intelligent animals, and share - as scientists have established - not only many genes but also many behavioural habits with us humans. This includes the habit of accepting to live in crowded, filthy and unpleasant places without making too much fuss. And thus pigs share also many of our diseases, including the very common and widespread influenza.

Swine influenza (also called swine flu, pigfluenza, hog flu and pig flu) refers to influenza caused by those strains of influenza virus that usually infect pigs. Swine influenza is quite common in the mid-western states of the USA (and occasionally in other US states), in Mexico, Canada, parts of South America and Europe (including the UK, Sweden and Italy) and in Kenya. It is even more widespread in China, Taiwan, Japan and other parts of eastern Asia, where pigs often live in very close proximity to farm birds and humans.

The first identification of an influenza virus as a cause of disease in pigs occurred in 1930. For the following 60 years swine influenza strains were almost exclusively of the sub-type H1N1. Then, between 1997 and 2002, novel viruses of three different sub-types and five different genotypes emerged as agents of influenza among pigs in North America.
In 1997-1998 the H3N2 strains emerged. They include genes derived by re-assortment from human, swine and avian viruses and have become a major cause of swine influenza in North America. Re-assortment between H1N1 and H3N2 produced H1N2. In 1999 a strain of H4N6 crossed the species barrier from birds to pigs in Canada, but was contained on a single farm.

The H1N1 form of swine influenza is one of the descendants of the so-called 'Spanish Flu' that caused a pandemic in humans in 1918–1919 and killed more than 50 million people (because antibiotics were not available then). As well as persisting in pigs, the descendants of the 1918 virus have also circulated in humans throughout the 20th century, contributing to the normal seasonal epidemics of influenza (usually during the winter months).

Pigs are unusual, as they can be infected with influenza strains that usually infect three different species: pigs, birds and humans. This makes pigs a host where influenza viruses can exchange genes and thus produce new and dangerous strains.
For example, the avian influenza virus H3N2 is endemic in pigs in China and has also been detected in pigs in Vietnam, increasing fears of the emergence of new variant strains. H3N2 evolved from H2N2 by antigenic shift.

In August 2004 researchers in China found the avian influenza virus H5N1 in pigs. These H5N1 infections are now quite common in Asia. In a survey of apparently healthy pigs housed near poultry farms in West Java (Indonesia), where avian flu had broken out, half of the pig samples contained the H5N1 virus. The Indonesian government has since found more similar results in the same region. But additional tests of pigs outside the area showed no viruses.

Of the three genera of influenza viruses that cause human flu, two also cause influenza in pigs, with Influenza Virus A being common in pigs and Influenza Virus C being rather rare. Influenza Virus B has not been reported in pigs. Within influenza virus A and influenza virus C the strains found in pigs and humans are largely distinct, though due to re-assortment there have been transfers of genes among strains crossing swine, avian and human species boundaries.

The current flu outbreak in humans is due to an apparently virulent new strain of influenza A virus - subtype H1N1 - that was produced by re-assortment from one strain of human influenza virus, one strain of avian influenza virus, and two separate strains of swine influenza.
The origin of this new strain is yet unknown, and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) reports that this strain has not been isolated in pigs. It passes with apparent ease from human to human, an ability attributed to an as-yet unidentified mutation.
The new strain causes the normal symptoms of influenza, such as fever, coughing and headache.

Transmission of the swine influenza virus from pigs to humans is not common. And when transmitted, it does not always cause human influenza. Often the only sign of infection is the presence of antibodies, which are only detectable by laboratory tests.
People who work with pigs, especially those with intense exposures, are most at risk of catching swine flu. But only about 50 such transmissions have been recorded since the mid-20th century, when the identification of influenza sub-types became possible.

Eating pork does not pose any risk of infection.

Thus the decision of the Egyptian government to order the complete cull of all 300,000 pigs in their country is not only wrong, nonsensical, completely unhelpful and - in my opinion - frankly idiotic. But Egypt, as a predominantly Islamic country, has its own agenda. As the eating - and even touching - of pork is prohibited for Muslims, the government in Cairo is using the new virus as a welcome excuse to harass the Christian minority in the country. Almost all pig farmers and consumers of pork in Egypt are Christians, and killing all their livestock will cause them severe hardship and economic problems. So the action of Egypt, which has been condemned by the WHO, has nothing to do with 'Swine Flu'. It is a political and even more religious decision, and a further sign of the growing influence of radical Muslim clerics in the Egyptian administration.

As things stand at present, there have so far been only 175 clearly identified cases of Influenza A/Veracruz/2009 (H1N1) in Mexico, of which 15 were fatal. (More people are killed in road accidents in Mexico every day! Not even to mention AIDS, cancer, obesity and various heart conditions, which are the really serious killers of our time.)

And although the WHO has raised the international alarm to Level 5 (out of six), nowhere has there been any sign of an independent outbreak outside Mexico. The total number of people affected by symptoms of the new virus outside Mexico is less than 700, and among them there was only one fatality so far, a 23-months-old Mexican child that was brought over the border to Texas and died there.

So one has to wonder what all the hype is really about.

Apart from selling a lot more newspapers and giving the bored majority of journalists something to get really sensationalist about, there are the vested interests of the pharmaceutical industry and medical supplies companies. Within hours of the first reports of 'Swine Flu' dozens of new websites appeared on the internet, offering gullible people all sorts of apparent remedies, from flu jabs and tablets to disinfectant fluids and face masks. According to medical experts, the latter are useful only to doctors and nurses in direct contact with infected patients.
For ordinary people going about their daily business they have been described as "unhelpful" as they get wet from breathing after a short period of time and then lose their protective capacity. One leading medical expert in Britain said in an interview with the BBC that the use of face masks by the general public "would create a completely false feeling of safety" and could only benefit the manufacturers and sellers of such masks.

Meanwhile there are hundreds of such websites. What they offer ranges from simple medication to the shameless exploitation of public fear. 'Individual packages' are on offer for up to € 50, and 'family packs' for up to € 200. This in itself is a scandal, as there is neither a need for them, nor are they in their majority of any real help or use to most people.

Some years ago we saw a similar media frenzy over the apparently deadly 'Bird Flu' (sub-type H5N1), which emerged first in Asia and especially in China. Hundreds of millions of chicken were killed and incinerated, most of them in China, and all over Asia and Europe (and some parts of Africa) millions of birds of all kinds - farm animals as well as wild birds - were destroyed in a mad panic. This hype also saw the vast promotion and frequent use of face masks.

But what came of it all? Not much. 25 people in China died of this influenza, 17 in Thailand, 55 in Vietnam and 115 (the highest number for any individual country) in Indonesia. And then the media lost interest and the big panic story faded away as many others before. So far there is no world-wide threat from birds, and no pandemic of 'Bird Flu'.

Even though I am no doctor or scientist, I am certain that the current hype over 'Swine Flu' will disappear into oblivion in the same way. As soon as there is another big story that can be hyped up and flogged around the word for the benefit of multi-national media tycoons, 'Swine Flu' will vanish from the headlines as quickly as it has appeared. The living conditions in Mexico will still be appalling, but who cares about that?!
Like the proverbial caravan, the global media circus will move on to the next story they can exploit and shock us with.

In general everyone can do his or her share to keep fit and stay healthy. Proper and nutritious food, especially fruit and vegetables, will provide a solid base for a healthy existence. Combined with an active lifestyle, enough physical exercise and - if necessary - the taking of vitamin and mineral supplements, most of us can live a good life without any fear of infections. And when people do get sick, there are enough doctors and hospitals available to look after them.

As we live in the 'Information Age' and have access to more facts, details and information than any other generation ever before us in the history of mankind, we should use our senses, gather information from serious and trustworthy sources, and then make up our minds. Tabloid papers and media hype provide not information, but only sensations. If we stay away from them and use our own wits and personal judgement, we will be much better off and much safer, in a flu epidemic as well as in any other possible situation.

The Emerald Islander

1 comment:

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