Mexican Swine Flu: The Agribusiness Connection

As I write this (April 26, 2009), an alarming new type of flu virus known as H1N1, or Mexican Swine Flu, is popping up around the world. Concentrated in Mexico and the United States so far, Mexican Swine Flu has caused the deaths of at least 68 people in Mexico. The 11 confirmed US cases are recovered or recovering. In the best case scenario, the Mexican Swine Flu will blow over in a few weeks. Currently, it is responding well to treatment by known antiviral medications. However, if the drug mutates or spreads to countries with poor health care quality, there is the possibility of a global pandemic.

H1N1, the Mexican Swine Flu, is an unusual virus because genetic mapping revealed that it may contain genes from no less than four separate strains of influenza: one swine, one avian, and two separate human strains. This kind of "quadruple reassortment" is extremely rare.

When I heard about this particular strain of swine flu for the first time two days ago, I immediately began to wait for news of a possible connection to the agribusiness practice of keeping animals, including pigs, in Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), also known as "factory farms". It didn't take long to arrive.

On the Mexico City subway, April 24, 2009. Photo by Eneas.
On the Mexico City subway, April 24, 2009. Photo by Eneas.

CAFOs and Disease

Concerns have long been raised over the possibility of bacterial "superbugs" arising from the overuse of antibiotics on CAFOs. In recent months, there has been growing concern about a form of antibiotic-resistant staph infection called MRSA that strikes both swine and humans. A new and virulent strain of the disease once associated primarily with pigs and pig farmers has spread to the general population.

As a virus, influenza is not affected by antibiotics, whether they are used responsibly or not.

However, the very nature of CAFOs makes them a probable Ground Zero for the development of any number of nasty diseases and parasites.

CAFOs house hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of animals in a confined space, often with limited access to fresh air, exercise, and sunshine. These overcrowded conditions create stress among the animals and encourage the spread of disease among both animals and farm workers. Workers in CAFOS are several times more likely than those in the general population to suffer from chronic respiratory ailments due to inhaling ammonia fumes from animal wastes and dust and dirt particles suspended in the air. Researchers have found antibiotic resistant strains of a number of bacteria clinging to airborne dust particles in CAFOs.

CAFOs also have a tremendous waste management problem. Where traditional farms used animal manure and other wastes as fertilizer for their fields, CAFOs must find other ways to dispose of the massive amounts of waste produced by the animals. One common solution is to keep the wastes in a large lagoon. Unfortunately, in this concentrated form, the wastes produce toxic gases that often result in the asphyxiation of several farm workers per year. The lagoons have also been known to leak into nearby groundwater supplies, poisoning them.

Hog CAFOs are particularly notorious for producing air and groundwater pollution, and for damaging workers' health. They are also dangerous because humans and swine are affected by many of the same diseases, so sick animals can spread the disease to workers, or vice versa.

Remember

You CANNOT contract swine flu by eating properly cooked pork.

You CAN contract swine flu even if you have never had contact with live pigs. The virus is now spreading via human-to-human transmission.


Mexican Swine Flu Origins

Did the Mexican Swine Flu of 2009 originate in a Mexican hog CAFO? It is still too early to say, and may never be known.

However, there is some interesting evidence to suggest that it did.

The outbreak is believed to have originated in the Mexican state of Vera Cruz, where a five year old boy (who has since recovered) was the first known victim of swine flu. Vera Cruz is home to a number of massive hog CAFOs owned by Smithfield Foods, the largest pork producer in the US, under a subsidiary named Granjas Carroll. The farms in the region house over 950,000 hogs in total. Residents of the area have long complained that the farms did not adequately treat their wastes and that air and groundwater pollution have resulted, as well as unusually high rates of respiratory problems in the local community.

A local Mexican official believes the disease vector may have been a type of fly that breeds in pig wastes. For a more detailed examination of this theory, please visit: Symptom: swine flu. Diagnosis: Industrial agriculture?

Other officials have argued that the connection is unlikely, because the pigs on the farms are North American, while the virus's genetic material appears to be Eurasian. Granjas Carroll also claims that no pigs or farm workers have shown symptoms of the disease, but it is still unclear whether any animals or workers have actually been tested. However, a group of Columbia University researchers has analyzed the virus and found that it may not only contain North American genetic material, but may actually be 100% swine in origin, rather than a swine-avian-human reassortment as initially reported.

New Scientist is also reporting that the H1N1 strain is closely related to a strain of swine flu that has been circulating among pigs in the United States since approximately 1998.

H3N2 - Precursor to H1N1?

In 1998, an aggressive form of flu sickened thousands of hogs in North Carolina. The virus, H3N2, turned out to be a combination of pig, human, and bird viruses, the first "triple reassortment" ever described. The flu quickly spread to hog populations across the United States.

Fortunately, H3N2 never began to affect humans. However, its emergence was blamed on overcrowded conditions in North Carolina's pig farms. That very year, the hog population of the state had reached 10 million animals, up from 2 million just six years earlier. At the same time, the number of farms had dropped from 15,000 in 1986 to 3,600 in 2000, and farms housing 1,000 or more pigs owned 99% of the pigs in the state. Today, the average hog farm houses more than 5,000 animals.

For obvious reasons, a virus is going to spread faster and mutate more readily among 5,000 animals than 100 or fewer, the size of 85% of hog farms in North Carolina in 1985. Imagine what it could do among 950,000.

Scientists at Columbia University and several other research instutitions have independently confirmed that the Mexican Swine Flu, H1N1, is closely related to H3N2 and similar reassortments that have been circulating among North American hogs since at least 1998.

Regardless of its origins, H1N1 is now spreading from human-to-human and infecting those who have no contact with pigs at all.

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Comments 14 comments

Tatjana-Mihaela profile image

Tatjana-Mihaela 7 years ago from Zadar, CROATIA

This is really excellent informative article. I am also preparing one about the same topic. As soon as I finish it, I will link it with yours.

Thumbs up!


kerryg profile image

kerryg 7 years ago from USA Author

Thanks, Tatjana! I expect to keep updating this as new information comes in. I will look forward to reading your hub as well.


pgrundy 7 years ago

Wow. This doesn't surprise me though. Factory farming of animals should be outlawed. I recall a recent rant by some right wing fanatic about 'pork barrel spending' and the item he chose to ridicule was federal funding of a study to reduce odor from pig farms, his point being pigs stink, get over it. But anyone who has been anywhere within five miles of an industrial pig farm knows how toxic these farms are and how dangerous to people and communities. Whole towns have lobbied to block them from moving into outlying areas.

I think that when the smoke clears, (if it ever does--I mean seriously, can things GET any scarier right now??? Global financial meltdown, possible nuclear war from Pakistan, and now THE PLAGUE???? Geez...)when it's all over and we start to actually look at this, we'll see that industrial meat production is responsible for a plethora of serious public health issues.

Thanks for this hub. Great work.


kerryg profile image

kerryg 7 years ago from USA Author

Wasn't the "right wing fanatic" in question John McCain? That made me roll my eyes too. Anyone who has ever lived near a CAFO knows how seriously they affect air and water quality in a region. I lived for several years about ten miles from a relatively small feedlot (probably about 1000 head) and when the wind was just wrong you could still smell the blasted thing. Out in western Nebraska there are some massive ones that you can smell for miles and miles regardless of wind. It's gross, but it's still better than what people near hog confinements have to put up with.

It is pretty ironic, really - seems lately that whatever "pork barrel" spending projects the Republicans object to earns them a smackdown from on high. We've had, what, three seperate volcanos since Bobby Jindal complained about volcano monitoring? And now the bad air quality and sanitation on industrial hog farms may have directly contributed to a possible pandemic? I'd be laughing if it weren't so sad.


pgrundy 7 years ago

Yeah, that Bobby Jindal DID seem like a 'smackdown from on high'! No sooner did he get that sarcastic remark out of his mouth than, boom, volcanic eruption.

What a goofball though. A guy who's state is still devastated from Katrina being sarcastic about federal aid. When the governor of Texas threatened secession recently Bill and I were cheering at the TV set--YES! Secede! Go for it! And take Tom DeLay with you. Make him King. Knock yourselves out. :)


cindyvine profile image

cindyvine 7 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

Pray that it doesn't reach China as they have more pig farms than any other breed of livestock!


kerryg profile image

kerryg 7 years ago from USA Author

Haha, did you see Nate Silver's post about the secession thing? It sounds good to me too. :D

http://www.fivethirtyeight.com/2009/04/hey-rick-ca...

And speaking of smackdowns from on high, how about Perry begging the federal government for assistance with swine flu barely two weeks after loudly announcing that Texas would be just fine on its own? I'm telling you, it would be hilarious if it weren't so sad.

http://community.livejournal.com/ontd_political/29...


Amanda Severn profile image

Amanda Severn 7 years ago from UK

Hi Kerry,

This is an excellent and thorough hub. I know this is a bit off topic, but it strikes me that lagoons of whiffy pig dung could surely be used to generate electricity? Just a thought.

We've just heard that we have a few cases of this flu now confirmed in the UK. With so much traffic between countries, it's inevitable that it will spread, but let's hope that the worst of it can be contained.


Delish Vegetarian profile image

Delish Vegetarian 7 years ago from Boston, MA

This is a great article, thanks for publishing. This connection really is being overlooked in the media, so it's good to see such in-depth writing on it. I look forward to reading more of your hubs.


Ashley Joy profile image

Ashley Joy 7 years ago

Thanks for the insite on the flu outbreak. I have been curious how it got its name especially since they keep telling us that pork is safe to eat and be around.

As for large agribusiness, I am personally taking steps to raising my own or buying locally the food that my family eats. I am sure I cannot eliminate all large business but the more I can remove the better.


pgrundy 7 years ago

Texas is actually very dependent on federal help because of the hurricanes that regularly slam into the coast, but apparently Rick Perry feels like they can handle that one their own. Honestly, the Republican party can just keep it up as far as I'm concerned--soon they'll go the way of the Whigs. The Democrats can become the new moderate party, and the Greens can take over the left. And the defunct Republicans can all move to the sovern nation of Texas!

That would be fine. :)

Hey Amanda--Three Rivers, a city south of ours, uses methane gas from their landfill to supplement natural gas. I guess with the right equipment you can purify it to the point that it can be burned as home heating fuel. Too cool!


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 7 years ago from North America

Thumbs Up! - Comprehensive information that is easy to read.


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 7 years ago from East Coast, United States

Kerryg - the super farms also put a lot of hog farmers out of work because they couldn't compete with the cost. So the poor displaced hog farmers had to look elsewhere for work, unless they could get bad paying jobs at the ham factories. The whole thing is a terrible mess, wrong for humans, wrong for hogs, wrong for humanity.


morrisonspeaks profile image

morrisonspeaks 7 years ago

Hi Kerry, Thanks for sharing this. Anyway, for all of you who are concerned about the spread of swine flu, I was able to find face (dust) masks at Home Depot. Drug Fair, Shop Rite& CVS were all sold out. Then it dawned on me to call a hardware store, since these masks are often used when wood working, and sure enough, right there in aisle 7 of my HD, in the paint section, were all types of masks.

I bought some basic ones, and then a couple that allow for venting, which keeps one cooler, they say. While I don't tend to panic in these circumstances, I am a planner. So, IF I would need one of these, and any one of my friends or family need masks too, I have a supply. Presuming we all escape this viral strain, I'll use them while sanding my next project, or simply return them.

I would advise calling any store you are intending to purchase masks from, as many are sold out, and you surely don't want to be wasting your two most valuable assets--time and health on dry runs. So, do your homework, and be prepared yet continue to live your lives.

Good luck and great health to all of you!

Ms. Morrison

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