Pigs and Humans Hit Hard With Flu This Year

The New York Times reported on two flu epidemics in the last week — one impacting humans and the other pigs — and both are causing worse problems than expected.  According to the Times, in the last year one-fourth of the world’s pig population died last year because the “African swine fever” epidemic swept through Asia — China lost 40% of its stock (300-350 million pigs) because of flawed government oversight practices in the face of the disease outbreak.  And yesterday the Times reported that this year’s influenza outbreak in the U.S. is looking as if it will be as severe as the 2017-18 flu season (which was the most severe in a decade) because two different strains are hitting the U.S. — the A(H1N1)pdm09 strain for which this year’s vaccine is effective, and the B Victoria flu, for which the shot is not helpful.

Why This Matters:  As my family battled the human version of the flu this past week, I (Monica) was surprised to learn that the pig population in Asia had been so severely impacted by its African swine fever epidemic.  The two are not directly related, but the coincidence of these major epidemics that are not being well controlled in either pigs or people was striking.  And though the African swine fever that has killed so many pigs does not make humans sick, according to a recent study of the disease, its continued spread could have serious global repercussions for global food security and economic stability.  Even soybean markets are negatively impacted because fewer pigs, means China is importing less soy meal to feed them, further hurting U.S. farmers. It is important that we learn lessons from these epidemics so we can better prepare for them in the future, and to try to prevent the spread of the swine fever disease here to the U.S.

Problems Controlling Swine Fever

Ironically, one major reason the disease spread so quickly in China is because of the Chinese government enacted measures to get ahead of the problem in 2015 — the rules were so tough that they caused behaviors that made the transmission much easier by concentrating pork production in one part of China and the outbreaks led to a lack of transparency about the problem which meant better prevention was not practiced early.

According to expert scientists, “lack of compliance with biosecurity and swill feeding rules is at the heart of the issue, Prof. Drew explained. The normal mechanisms in industrial production are effective at controlling swine fevers (African and classical), but problems arise when they aren’t followed. People don’t dip their boots in disinfectant, some veterinarians travel from farm to farm without following best practice, in decontamination, and transporters and feed distributors drive from one place to the next with contaminated vehicles. And at the international level, meat and products illegally carried by passengers present a significant risk of further spread, with several countries reporting significant proportions of such meat containing the virus.”

Parting Shot: Doctors say if you have not gotten a flu shot this flu season, it’s not too late and you should get one even if it is not effective against all the active strains of the virus.

 

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