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The swine flu saga
Opinion

The swine flu saga

S.Sivadas

This was the virus that did not seem to discriminate between the powerful and the gifted, and it did not seem to stop at any borders. Like the celebrated French medical force this was the virus sans borders. It did not spare the powerful president of the ruling party nor the celebrated actress, Padma awardee and lawmaker. Amit Shah and Shabana Azmi were just two numbers for this virus that has struck across the northern plains and as far as Bengal and Mumbai.

According to available data for the HINI influenza (A), or swine flu epidemic, this year has been the worst, with over 60 per cent of cases coming from Rajasthan, Delhi, Haryana and Punjab.

The Government’s own agency, the Integrated Diseases Surveillance Programme (IDSP) reported that between January 28 and February 3 this year alone it had been quite bad with 1176 of the 2101 cases being tested positive coming from these four states. Of these, the breakup is interesting, with Rajasthan reporting 2,363 cases, Delhi 1,011, Haryana 490 and Punjab 250 cases. Of the 226 flu fatalities, 117 were reported from the three states, though Delhi has not reported any death.

An expert monitoring the cases however does not think that this should be cause for any panic. According to him flu cases could be either due to influenza (A) HINI or influenza B and there is always the possibility of a strain or a combination of strains that is more prevalent than the other and cause infection. ‘There is largely immunity within the community against the strains but whenever there is a build-up of people who aren’t exposed to the prevalent strain, infections will go up,’ he  pointed out. Of the two flu seasons, monsoon and winter, the dominant strain in the last monsoon was H3N2 and it was found that the maximum numbers of cases during this winter (70 to 90 per cent) were discovered to be carrying the HINI strain.

According to an Indian Council of Medical Research scholar an increasing number of cases are reported when the pool of unimmunised population increases. And one of the causes for this could be migration and new births. This could also be due to the changing nature of the virus itself, and its own mutation that does not respond to the standard medication. Like the present concern there was also a scare in 2009 that sparked fears of a killer virus of the future but that was proved to be unfounded.

The incidences now and the casualities do not seem to be any higher than what has been happening elsewhere in the world, according to experts. In all flu cases there is the potential for fatalities for one per cent and the present situation does not seem to be anything alarming. Mostly deaths also happen in cases that could be due to some other medical condition or because of low immunity. ‘The virus is very dynamic and its antigenic structure keeps changing and thus it is impossible to predict the next spurt. That is also one of the reasons for not introducing any universal vaccine for treating this flu.

Another trigger could be that arch villain, climate change that the US President Donald Trump does not believe in. Any slight alteration in the temperature or a slight drop does provide a conducive environment for the virus to grow. ‘Since this year the winter was colder, the numbers started pouring in early and may ebb sooner,’ said the expert.

Climate change or migrations across borders, or regional variations, these new viruses have a way of playing hide and seek, and give sleepless nights to virologists and specialists. For some time now, it seems specialists were sure that the intensive farming systems practised in South China was the main culprits, the mutation of the virus. Seasonal drifts and episodic changes in genomic exchange have also been suspected for this phenomenon.

The Science journal published a paper recently that showed that after years of stability the North American flu virus had taken an evolutionary step, a vertiginous leap, a new avatar, because of the process of industrialisation and the big companies going into pig production. That has so far been the monopoly of the Chinese as also the evolution of the flu.

The pig sector of the US agri-business has been transformed in recent years into something more close to resembling the huge petro-chemical industry than the rustic family farm in a pastoral setting with milk maids that school textbooks so revel describing with much nostalgia. For instance, in 1966 the US had 53 million pigs distributed around a million rural farms.  By now there are 65 million pigs all concentrated in some 65,000 factory farms. This transformation of the traditional pigsty into a gigantic inferno of faecal matter had its spinoffs. The dung they produce in this cramped asphyxiating heat is the fertile ground for the pathogens to multiply with the speed of light, and the damage that this can cause would extend further than what their autoimmune systems can cope with. Though this might not be the immediate cause of the flu this is a factor that cannot be ignored either.

According to the Pew Research Centre ‘animal production in industrial farms, where attention was drawn to the grave danger of the continued spread of the virus, a characteristic of oversized flocks and herds, increasing the chance that new viruses will appear through the process of mutation or reformulation, which can give rise to new viruses more efficient at transmitting themselves to humans.’

The Pew panel was also alarmed by the fact that the promiscuous use of antibiotics in pig factories that are cheaper than those offered to humans, was in direct proportion to the surge of resistant staphylococcuous infections. At the same time the residual discharges from these increased the presence of E-coli and pfiesteria that is the protozoa that killed millions of fishes and infected dozens of fishermen in the estuaries of North Carolina.

The highly globalised industry that enjoys worldwide influence is a monstrous power that the environmentalists cannot take on. The herd-animal conglomerates have enough clout and influence any attempts by the environmentalists to highlight the pathogenic threats that these businesses pose. They not only pose a threat to the improvement of the environment that these conscious organisations are trying to achieve.

It is in this context that the overseas upsurge in swine flu has to be viewed, and their coming to face the brick wall of the pork industry. For instance, the Mexican outbreak of the swine flu has been traced to the largest branch of the US conglomerate, Smithfield. Here again the important aspect is that the progressive deterioration in public health is part of the sign of the World Health Organisation’s failure to check the pandemic. The attempts by the trans-national drug cartels to manipulate the prices on the basic and vital medicines, and the planetary catastrophe that the pig production has become, carried out with utter disdain for the environmental consequences together have the potential to create a global crisis of unimaginable proportions.