Swine flu developing: a roundup of voices

Listening to President Obama's press conference a couple nights ago reassured me that the U.S. government is doing all it can to prepare and avoid hysterical measures. But few politicians, health officials or farmers are speaking about the broader causes and implications of this outbreak, or how the way we farm and eat could help prevent future outbreaks.

Here are some recent stories that help paint a larger picture.

The Narco News Bulletin describes the role that international trade agreements and international environmental regulations played in encouraging factory hog farming in Mexico.

Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have also confirmed that the current H1N1 strain of influenza originated on a factory farm-6 of the 8 viral gene strains in this flu were first recognized in an outbreak of swine flu in Texas in 1998. That flu, like the current strain, was a hybrid, mixing avian, swine, and human genes and quickly spread across several states and was likely a result of intensive confinement and long distance transportation of pigs.

New York Times food writer Mark Bittman has also made the link between swine flu and farming, giving readers a "taste" of the crowded and filthy conditions that 42 percent of the world's pigs are raised in.

Guardian contributor Mike Davis argues that "Any amelioration of this new pathogen ecology would have to confront the monstrous power of livestock conglomerates such as Smithfield Farms(pork and beef) and Tyson (chickens)."

GRAIN calls for a new response from the international public health community, noting that "Experts have been warning for years that the rise of large-scale factory
farms in North America has created the perfect breeding grounds for the
emergence and spread of new highly-virulent strains of influenza. ‘Because concentrated animal feeding operations tend to concentrate large numbers of animals close together, they facilitate rapid transmission and mixing of viruses,' said scientists from the US National Institutes of Health in 2006."

Finally, an April 30 op-ed in the Times by Nathan Wolfe calls for a "worldwide safety net," constructed of better monitoring of people who work with and are exposed to animals in viral hotspots around the world--whether hog farmers in Mexico or the Midwestern United States, or bushmeat hunters in Africa. "Our current global public health strategies," Wolfe writes, "are reminiscent of cardiology in the 1950s - when doctors focused solely on responding to heart attacks and ignored the whole idea of prevention."