Swine Flu Outbreak Offers Sneak Peak of Pandemic to Come

Statement of Worldwatch Senior Researcher Danielle Nierenberg to Mexican Congress

Washington, D.C.-As health officials scramble to develop a vaccine for the H1N1 virus, commonly referred to as swine flu, there is reason to believe that the current swell is merely a sign of the larger pandemic to come. We should regard the current outbreak of H1N1 as a bad dress rehearsal for opening night. It is not a question of whether the virus will reemerge, but when, and we are woefully unprepared.

Influenza pandemics are often preceded by "herald waves" of a flu strain at the end of one flu season, only to return stronger the next flu season, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. This was true of the 1918 pandemic, which first emerged as a moderate flu virus in the spring and returned much stronger in the fall, killing as many as 40 million people worldwide. While much has changed since then, this new strain poses new challenges and we are not prepared to handle the consequences of quarantining and treating people who are infected or limiting global air travel and international trade.

Rather than focusing all of our attention on developing a vaccine, we must find ways to stop these diseases before they start. Prevention of zoonotic diseases-diseases that animals can transfer to humans-requires a fundamental change in the way we raise animals. We can begin by raising fewer animals for food overall and phasing out the most intensive confinement practices.

While the connection between the Granjas Carroll industrial pig operation in Vera Cruz, Mexico (a Smithfield Foods subsidiary) and the emergence of H1N1 is circumstantial, there is some evidence to suggest that factory farming practices are to blame. Crowded conditions and the genetic uniformity of animals on factory farms make them ideal incubators for disease. Furthermore, the overuse and misuse of antibiotics to combat these diseases create multidrug-resistant bacteria, making it harder to fight illness among animals and humans alike.

As we raise more animals in industrial-style operations, confining them by the tens of thousands, it is likely that we will see other diseases emerging and jumping the species barrier from animals to humans. Because of their genetic similarity to humans, pigs and chickens often serve as "mixing vessels" for various diseases, stirring up their genetic traits and making them easier to pass along.

As we brace for the next wave of the swine flu pandemic, perhaps we will all become more aware of the conditions under which more than 40 percent of the world's nearly 1 billion pigs are raised. Ultimately, we must realize that how we raise animals for food is inherently linked to our own health and the health of our environment.

This statement is based on remarks Danielle Nierenberg will deliver to members of the Mexican Congress on June 3, 2009.