Thursday, July 30, 2009

Brett the Vet - When Swine Flew

The PANdemIC of swine flu is infiltrating all areas of the globe. Thousands of new cases go reported and unreported every day. The number of recorded deaths is increasing in compromised individuals and the healthy. Experts have been offering potential epidemiological scenarios, but nobody really knows what will happen as the virus continues to change.

The swine flu virus originally came from birds living close to pigs, infecting them and changing slightly. Intensive factory farming created conditions that allowed the virus to spread rapidly and mutate.

The first cases in humans were contracted from infected pigs. Now the virus has adapted, and altered sufficiently to be transmitted from person to person. Measures to restrict the spread of the disease have been ineffective because it is highly contagious in a world where global and local mobility facilitate transmission. The H1N1 virus has already been introduced into more than 70 countries from people travelling abroad, initially from Mexico where the outbreak began. Specific examples illustrate how rapidly the virus can spread. In hospitals, infected medical staff transferred it to their families, communities and beyond. An infected British medical student on a tour of hospitals in Kenya effectively spread the disease all around the country.

Bizarrely, in Egypt, although only the human population has been affected, all 10 000 of the nation's pigs, that belonged almost exclusively to the Coptic community responsible for cities' waste removal, have been unceremoniously slaughtered. In South Africa the virus has officially been documented in all nine provinces.

The domestic pig has always been closely associated with man and has functioned symbiotically over the centuries in recycling human waste and excess, in return for food. The life cycle of other organisms has adapted to this association, the best example being the human tapeworm where the cyst part of its lifecycle lodges in the muscle meat of swine.

The obvious similarities and differences between man and pig are evident on many levels. The remarkably human like cadavers of pigs hanging in an abattoir eerily evoke the horrors of mass slaughter. With skins removed, humans resemble pigs even more. Anatomically the meat is virtually indistinguishable. The nerves and blood vessels are practically identical. Hearts and livers, lungs and kidneys, stomach, intestines and spleen are the same in form and function. The eyes of a pig are sensitive, delicate, and knowing. Ears, nose, lips, tongue manifest the senses, creating the reality of living in this world.

Then there is the brain. Two human brains may look the same but none is quite alike in function. The brain of a genius looks exactly like that of someone less gifted, and this variance exists amongst pigs as well.

Naturally, pigs are intelligent creatures. Omnivores like us. They form family groups, enjoy communicating and eating, lazing about, and intercourse. They care deeply for their young, nurturing and protecting them. They take pride in their homes, and play games. Once upon a time they could fly, given the freedom to behave normally with right to a life without pain and suffering.

The swine flu virus does not distinguish between man and pig. In isolated, natural populations of pigs or humans the disease would be self-limiting. There is no stigma attached to this virus only because of its passive transmission. Currently there is a debate about the hype created by journalism that is muddying the issue, but an infected person passing through Prince Albert need only sneeze once at the crowded local market to potentially infect the entire town.

Modern farming methods continue to create conditions conducive to the development and spread of disease the likes of which we have never seen before. With the moral and ethical issues aside, human health is threatened on a massive scale by ignoring the threat of the vast breeding grounds for disease.

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