Swine flu, pigs and profits

By Hillel Cohen, Workers World, April 29, 2009

Fear of a swine flu pandemic is spreading much faster than the virus itself.

While it’s too soon to predict how widespread and deadly this new variation of influenza virus will be, information about the likely origin of the outbreak is starting to surface. A huge factory-farm pig operation owned by U.S. corporate giant Smithfield and operated by its Mexican subsidiary, Granjas Carroll de Mexico, may have spawned this new threat to public health.

Local residents from the towns of La Gloria and Perote in the Mexican state of Veracruz have been fighting the pork-breeding giant for years.

Producing close to a million hogs annually, the company maintains huge lagoons of hog manure as well as open-air dumps for rotting remains of hogs that die before being slaughtered. Fumes from the hog waste foul the air for miles and residents believe that their ground water may have also been contaminated. Swarms of flies that feed on the manure are in close reach of the towns.

It is well known that flies can spread avian flu by carrying material from infected bird droppings from place to place. It is possible that flies feeding on the hog manure may also be in contact with bird droppings and became the mechanism for mixing virus material from hogs, birds and humans, which is now causing the outbreak.

According to reports from the Mexican newspaper La Jornada, local residents tried to block the construction of the farm as early as 2005. A year ago, several activists were arrested by Veracruz authorities, who have worked closely with Granjas Carroll to suppress opposition to the huge hog operation.

Long before the swine flu outbreak made it into the international news, hundreds of La Gloria residents were complaining of severe respiratory infections, with many developing into pneumonia. Pneumonia is one of the severe complications of influenza infection. Veratect, a U.S. private company that monitors health outbreaks around the world for its subscribers, noticed the outbreak in Veracruz over a month ago and called the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). With its attention still on alleged—and non-existent—bioterrorism, the CDC ignored these calls for several weeks.

The first confirmed case of the new swine flu virus was that of a young boy in La Gloria, who has since recovered. The outbreak has spread to Mexico City and other Mexican areas as well as some cases in New York, California, Texas and other locations in the U.S., as well as around the world. At this writing at least 1,500 suspected cases in Mexico have resulted in over 150 deaths. While cases in the U.S. have so far been milder, one or two suspected deaths have already been recorded.

Health officials believe that the current strain of virus is a mix of genetic material from viruses that infect hogs and birds as well as humans. For almost a decade, world and U.S. health officials have focused on so-called avian or bird flu—labeled H5N1—which has spread around the world but has not “jumped” to human populations. Although some people contracted bird flu from close proximity to poultry and water foul, no human-to-human transmission has been reported.

This new swine flu is a variation of H1N1, which is much more common in human flu. It’s already clear that it is spreading by human-to-human transmission.

Because the largest number of cases have come from Mexico, some right-wing commentators on the Fox network have already tried to blame Mexican immigrants for bringing the virus across the border and may use the fear over swine flu to whip up even more immigrant bashing.

The fact that the U.S. cases seem to be among tourists from this country or those close to tourists has so far limited the attacks on immigrants. So far, however, relatively little attention in the big business mass media has been given to the Smithfield connection or the fact that similar huge and hazardous plants can be found in North Carolina, Utah and elsewhere.

An article in Rolling Stone magazine in 2006 estimated that Smithfield alone produced 26 million TONS of animal waste a year—the byproduct of over $11 billion in sales. So-called “free-trade” agreements like NAFTA have enabled corporate giants like Smithfield to set up their hazardous shops in Mexico with little or no regulation and at the expense of the local people.

Will the corporate criminals who have profited from this environmental and public health disaster be held responsible?

Cohen is a doctor of public health.

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