Facing the Facts about Swine Flu

Radhika Krishnan

Swine Flu, technically a variety of flu caused by the H1N1 virus, is the latest of epidemics (following close on the heels of avian flu) to have affected people all over the globe. The virus has now spread to 74 countries, including India, Australia, the UK, Spain, Japan and Chile, among others. In India alone, more than 2200 cases of swine flu have officially been identified, and the death toll from the virus is now around 30.
The 24/7 coverage of the spread of swine flu all around the world (it has officially been declared a pandemic) and the widespread panic that this has generated hides a most important issue: what exactly is responsible for this disease in the first place? What caused it, what are the reasons for its spread? How to prevent such outbreaks in the future? Like any other disease, these questions are central to any long-term solution. However, unfortunately, the media attention focussed on the panic value of the pandemic – not on deeper questions.
What the mainstream media most often fails to mention is that swine flu (along with other diseases, notably the Mad Cow disease) owes its origin to the modern animal ‘farming’ practices prevalent in the West. For many decades, animal rights and environmental activists have been highlighting the pathetic conditions in the factories in which cattle, pig, chicken and other animals are reared for human consumption. They have been pointing out that the very nature of the globalised meat industry today is an ideal recipe for many such swine flus – the epicentre of the current flu outbreak is the town of La Gloria, east of Mexico City, which hosts a giant industrial pig complex jointly owned by the US MNC Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork processor.
The multinational giants controlling the global food industry, including Smithfield, have horrendous track records – Smithfield’s La Gloria factory for instance, like others in the industry, produce vast lagoons of waste products and discharges. In March this year, 60 per cent of the town’s population became ill with flu-like symptoms. Pigs, whose immune systems were suppressed by the stress of crowding and fast feeding, and kept confined indoors, were perfect disease incubators for the flu whose preferred method of transmission is virus-infected aerosol droplets. Thanks to the modern practice of transporting live animals, the new virus spread rapidly through pig herds around the country. While Smithfield has an exceptionally poor track record vis-à-vis environmental pollution and labour rights, the fact remains that the very nature of the heavily mechanized animal farming, geared towards amassing profits at any cost, has huge environmental and health implications.
While the outbreak of swine flu is indeed a serious issue which merits introspection on the impacts of modern animal farming techniques, it is worth noting that neither the media nor the governments take the approximately 570 deaths a day due to normal flu and large number of deaths due to Diarrhoea and Tuberculosis (which together kill 2250 people a day), or due to Malaria, Dengue and other diseases equally seriously. The total number of people swine flu has killed worldwide is lower than the number of Indians who die in a single day from tuberculosis and diarrhoea-related diseases. To put the issue in perspective, it is useful to compare the reported deaths due to swine flu worldwide to the annual number of deaths from other causes. According to WHO, 1 million people die from malaria each year, 2 million from AIDS, 2 million from air pollution, 7.4 million from cancer, 17.5 million from cardiovascular disease, and 1.6 million from tuberculosis. In other words, 31.5 million people die each year from causes that in large part could be prevented.
Why doesn’t the entire administrative machinery get into a huddle to urgently discuss diseases like malaria, which takes a huge toll of human lives too? Could it be because the profile of those affected by the latter is largely the rural poor? In fact by creating an artificial panic on the spread of swine flu, many countries are diverting resources away from their more urgent heath needs.
The developed West likes to peddle the notion that epidemics arise in the unhealthy, poor “underdeveloped” countries and then spread to affect the “developed” world. Swine flu –a disease that emerged due to disastrous factory farming practices in the West, explodes that myth.

In India and the world, the question of swine flu cannot be divorced from the pressing question of the dismal state of public health care in India: which leaves people at the mercy of debilitating chronic diseases as well as epidemics.