Sustained Outrage

Swine flu: Are factory farms to blame?

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During a Gazette Online Chat earlier this week, I asked Kanawha County Health Officer Dr. Rahul Gupta about possible connections between swine flu and factory farming.

Dr. Gupta responded this way:

Doubt it. In fact we have known about  this virus since 1930. However, we usually detect 1-2 cases per year and had 12 from Dec 2005 to Feb 2008. Pigs routinely get this during the fall season at farms. Somehow this time, the virus has figured out a way to jump from human to human! 

Later, when I added some additional information and a link to a public radio report on the subject, he added:

You make sense, overcrowding is a concern whether in pigs, chickens or Humans! However, I don’t know the data in this regard.

I thought I would give Sustained Outrage readers some more information, mostly from a few other media outlet reports I’ve read or heard on this subject.

First, there was a great piece on public radio’s Living on Earth called Farming the Flu.  It featured an interview with Ellen Silbergeld, teaches environmental health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She’s studied the connections between factory farming and disease and says that industrial-scale livestock operations are fertile ground for viruses to mutate:

Well, this, of course, is not strictly limited to influenza viruses, but is based on observations by us and others in studying bacteria as well as viruses.

These operations contain elements that really are conducive to raising concerns for public health. You have thousands of animals, in the case of pigs usually between two and six thousand animals, held in close confinement under conditions that are not sanitary, that is frankly that they’re housed with their wastes. And therefore you’ve got a lot of hosts available to exchange a pathogen, which is one of the processes by which viruses and bacteria evolve and acquire mutations. And then the way in which these operations are run – and I want to stress that this is a worldwide issue, it is not peculiar or restricted to Mexico.

You have situations that are not bio-secure and also large amounts of waste that are not well regulated in terms of their management or disposal. In terms of bio-security, it’s generally not recognized that these operations have to be high ventilated. When you put two to six thousand animals in side a building, you have to have very high rates of ventilation or that animals will die of heat stress. So several researchers have in fact reported that in the environs of these large operations, you can detect pathogens in the outflow air from these exhaust fans. People have also isolated influenza virus from the legs and feet of flies in the vicinity of these operations. This was noted in some outbreaks of avian influenzas, for example, in Japan. So, the lack of bio-security, the very dense populations, the conditions that are conducive to viral evolution and mutation and the lack of control over disposal of waste from these animals which also contain pathogens are really the elements that have given rise to concern for us and many others as to the public health implications of this manner of food animal production.

And on the Facing South Blog,  they’ve recounted a couple of interesting media reports concerning factory farming and swine flue.

First, they linked to a story from Grist, which reported on a possible link between this new version of swine flu and Smithfield Foods of Virginia, the world’s largest pork producer and processor.

Second, they pointed readers to a story in the Raleigh News & Observer (a paper that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for its groundbreaking “Boss Hog” series on pork production) that said a virus related to the current outbreak was first identified a decade ago at a farm in the eastern North Carolina county.