Putting lipstick on a pig flu

On Friday, I wrote about the threat to human health posed by the emergence of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea. In the process of writing that post, I learned – if nothing else – the correct spelling of ‘gonorrhea’.

Bring it, Snigdha Nandipati.

Then, yesterday, medical journal The Lancet published the first scientific estimate of the number of deaths attributable to the outbreak of swine flu in 2009. Turns out, the virus was much more deadly than originally thought:

Beginning in 2009, the virus swept the globe, and the WHO counted 18,500 swine flu deaths that had been confirmed by laboratory tests. But according to new estimates from researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the virus probably killed between 105,700 and 400,000 people around the world in its first year alone, and an additional 46,000 to 179,000 people likely died of cardiovascular complications from the virus.

– H1N1 Swine Flu May Have Killed 15 Times More Than First Said, ABC News

So I thought now might be an opportune time to repost an article I wrote in 2009 for The Summer Pennsylvanian, as relevant today as it was the day it was originally posted [6/4/2009]. Also, since it was in The Summer Pennsylvanian, I imagine nobody actually read it the first time. Please excuse the somewhat out-of-left-field conclusion to the article – I was encouraged to relate my topic in some way to on-campus developments:

A virus by any other name

In shying away from the term “swine flu,” officials ignore the source of the problem

Nobody wants to get swine flu, and for good reason. With symptoms like fever, coughing, headache and possible death, the disease is the greatest threat to our health since the Great Meningitis Outbreak of 2009.

But there is one thing people seem more afraid of than contracting swine flu – calling it that. And the world’s reluctance to call a pig flu “a pig flu” could be more harmful to its health than the outbreak itself.

The virus’ name serves as an important reminder that there is a direct relationship between what we choose to eat and the health of our society as a whole.

That swine flu originated in pigs is not the subject of serious controversy. Henry Niman, who tracks virus evolution, told The Associated Press that “it’s a flu virus from a swine. There’s no other name to call it.”

Niman’s assessment hasn’t stopped people from trying. Many are doing their best to deny any association between swine flu and our porcine companions.

When I first heard that Israel planned on renaming the disease ‘Mexico flu’ because swine don’t chew their cuds – a requirement for meat to be kosher, the attempt struck me as somewhat self-defeating. After all, as long as swine flu was not kosher, Israelis should have remained safe.

Though its reasoning is outlandish, Israel is not alone in its quest to do away with the swine in ‘swine flu’. Other countries, like The Netherlands, made a similar switch to ‘Mexican flu’ in homage to the site where the disease was first detected.

Even the Center for Disease Control sought to re-label swine flu after two of its defining genetic markers, H1 and N1. This nomenclature is, of course, technically accurate, and differentiates the strain from H3N1, H2N3, and others.

But the CDC didn’t make the change in the name of strict scientific accuracy. Instead, the move was a nod to America’s $97 billion pork industry, which expressed concern that the association between its product and a deadly disease was hurting sales. In fact, the National Pork Producers Council estimated that swine flu cost its members over $50 million in sales during the last week of April alone.

Indeed, as there is no risk of contracting the disease from eating pork, America’s pig farmers seem justified in distancing their product from swine flu.

But their attempt to redefine the disease threatens to obscure the animal origin of the outbreak and allows pig farmers and those who choose to consume their product to shirk any responsibility for its emergence.

Historian Clive Ponting argues that human disease and animal husbandry are inextricably linked. As of 1991, when he wrote A Green History of the World, humans shared “65 diseases with dogs, 50 with cattle, 46 with sheep and goats, and 42 with pigs.” Many of the diseases from which we suffer are simply the natural consequence of living with animals.

Modern agricultural practices only tend to make the problem worse. Often animals are raised on factory farms in crowded, squalid conditions that are conducive to the spread of disease. And the antibiotics that make factory farms possible force the development of dangerous drug-resistant microbes, like MRSA.

This is the environment from which swine flu emerged. Everyone who benefits from livestock, particularly livestock raised by modern industrial farming, bears a share of the responsibility for this (and every other) outbreak of swine flu.

Animal husbandry is obviously not going to go away, and I’m not going to argue that people should not eat meat [Editor’s note, 6/26/2012: at least not in a public forum such as The Summer Pennsylvanian]. But they can certainly eat less of it and make sure that when they do so, it was grown using the safest possible practices.

Fortunately, Penn’s recent decision to replace Aramark with Bon Appetit will help students choose to support a healthier food supply.

Director of Business Services Laurie Cousart said that Bon Appetit’s leadership in sustainable dining was a factor in the decision to bring the company to campus. She added that Bon Appetit comes to Penn with a number of programs designed to force students to think about where their food comes from, such as Farm to Fork, which showcases food produced within 150 miles of campus.

While Bon Appetit will direct you to better choices, it cannot force you to make every right decision about what to put on your plate. So next time you sit down in 1920 Commons, don’t just stop to consider where your food came from.

If swine flu has taught us anything, it’s hopefully that it is just as important to stop and think about where our diseases come from.

Fun fact: When I submitted this column, I forgot to include my own suggestion for a title [Editor’s note: the editorial page editor has final say]. My editor came up with the exact same title – word for word – on her own.

Small miracles.

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