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Life Arts    H3'ed 5/2/09

The Real Swine Flu Conspiracy

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Both the political left and the political right have their favorite swine flu conspiracy theories concerning the origins of the H1N1 strain of influenza that has caused unnecessary panic around the world.

On the far right, the conspiracy is mostly the Obama administration’s doing. Delusional radio talk show host Michael Savage claimed; "There is certainly the possibility that our dear friends in the Middle East cooked this up in a laboratory somewhere in a cave and brought it to Mexico knowing that our incompetent government would not protect us from this epidemic because of our open-border policies." Rush Limbaugh stated emphatically; "All of this is by design. It's designed to get people to respond to government orders. ... It is designed to expand the role and power of government and schools, and the media just falls right in line with it."

On the far left, the conspiracy is a sordid tale of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) colluding with big pharmaceutical companies to produce a new mixed strain of virus that would cause a pandemic in order to enrich the vaccine makers who originally engineered the virus.

The internet has made conspiracy theorizing into an art form capable of turning almost any nonsense into urban legend. The mainstream media haven’t helped through their incessant need to boost ad dollars by sensationalizing every event. The plain fact of the matter is that tens of millions of people get the flu every year, and hundreds of thousands die every year world wide. Most years, genetic variations show up in the viral populations, but usually these changes are relatively minor.

However, there are circumstances where larger genetic changes can occur by the mixing of genes from more than one virus into a single new strain. This can happen for example when a virus jumps from its normal host to a new host species, where genes from a human virus can mingle with genes from, for example, a pig virus. You don’t need a corrupt pharmaceutical company or Islamic radicals with Petri dishes in Afghani caves to do this, you just need highly overcrowded factory farms with thousands of pigs crammed into as small a space as possible, while being fed diets rich in antibiotics. 

In fact, there have been numerous outbreaks of viral pig infections throughout the world in the last several decades as pig farming went from being a relatively widely distributed activity to one which was highly concentrated in large factory farms. Overcrowding and sanitation problems, in conjunction with continual antibiotic treatment, makes these farms a nearly perfect breeding ground for new viruses. 

It has now been found that the current H1N1 virus is indeed of pig origin, and that it can be traced to a viral outbreak in pigs in North Carolina in 1998. That strain did not infect people, but it did spread to other farms in the US.

New pig viruses are emerging all the time across the globe wherever high density pig farming is practiced. The tainted heparin debacle of 2007 which killed a number of people in US hospitals could be traced directly to a shortage of pig intestines (the source of heparin) in China after a new virus stain forced the killing of millions of pigs to stop the spread of the disease.

Under factory farming conditions, pigs can act as incubators for the breeding of new virus strains, and because of the close proximity of farm workers, there is an increased risk for a new strain to jump species to infect humans. This is apparently what happened in a Mexican pig farming area within the last several months.

As the irresponsible news media hysteria begins to die down, and it is becoming increasingly clear that this flu strain is not any more deadly than more common flu strains, the real problem becomes evident. Factory farming of pigs is the problem. This may be true for factory chicken farming as well. It is no small coincidence that the two major types of flu that can cross-infect humans are called “swine flu” and “avian flu”. You don’t hear much about bat flu or aardvark flu because we don’t raise these animals on factory farms. So while you can’t get swine flu from eating pork, the original virus came from the very same factory farmed pigs that they make bacon out of. 

So the next time you hear someone talk about the swine flu being a conspiracy of the Obama administration, or terrorists, or Big Pharma, you can laugh and say, “nope, it’s the bacon in my fridge that’s the problem”.

 

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John R. Moffett PhD is a research neuroscientist in the Washington, DC area. Dr. Moffett's main area of research focuses on the brain metabolite N-acetylaspartate, and an associated genetic disorder known as Canavan disease.

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