03 May, 2009

Swine Flu Origins and Slum Scare

I promise, I won't do any more posts about the pig/swine/H1N1-flu after this one. But I just can't help noting the irony in this: The origin of the new virus strain that has nearly caused a global panic might be (although this is not confirmed) an large-scale industrial pig farm close to the village of La Gloria in Mexico. This puts some perspective on all the fuss about the unsanitary pig farms in Cairo's garbage collector communities, doesn't it?

I'm not an expert, but I can't help but wonder if there is actually any kind of solid scientific base for assuming that the zabaleen settlements would be more likely to breed new strains of mortal viruses than those large scale industrial monstrosities? Just pointing out that they smell bad won't do, I'm afraid.

Remember the "mad cow" disease? That one is believed to have originated in large scale industrial farms in Europe where cattle was being fed the remains of other cattle in the form of meat and bone meal, causing the epidemic to spread. Besides, those large scale pig farms apparently have their own disturbing ecological implications: "a single Smithfield plant in Utah, housing a half million animals, generates more fecal waste per year than the 1.5 million people in Manhattan." (Now that single fact should be enough to make anyone go vegetarian).

Half a million pigs together - and remember the total number of pigs in Egypt is between 300.000-500.000 - to me that sounds like the perfect breeding ground for all kinds of new viruses and other unknown life forms. Perhaps this is a larger potential threat than the pig farms on the outskirts of Cairo? After all, people have lived in close contact with animals for ages, and they will continue to do so even after the last pig in Egypt has been slaughtered.

I think some of the most virulent attacks on Cairo's pigs must be placed in the context of the great "slum scare." In this emerging discourse, the informal communities housing an ever larger section of the world's poor is portrayed as a ticking time bomb, likely to breed not only uncontrollable crime and terrorism but new forms of plague and other disastrous pandemics...

Don't get me wrong: It's not that it's not a serious problem that in some parts of Cairo hundreds of thousands of people are packed together on a few square kilometers, often without functioning sewage systems or clean drinking water. But this constant focus on the health risks stemming from the poorest of the poor tend to obscure the health hazards associated with the life-style of the upper segments of the population. Kind of like someone sitting in his SUV in a traffic jam on the mehwar from 6th of October City, complaining about the smell from those filthy pigs, while happily contributing to the pollution that is slowly killing every living creature in Greater Cairo...

1 comment:

  1. Hey,

    Just wanted to point to this post and blog:
    Based on my, albeit limited, study of genetics, i think it's clear that this person knows what they're talking about.

    Science would seem to indicate that avianflu, swineflu and, as you mentioned mad cow, emerged as results of the conditions in major industrial corporate agribusiness farms.

    In fact, i've read in multiple sources that there was a Science magazine article (2006 i think), in which scientists warned that the swineflu virus had taken off into a particularly virulent evolutionary track in a major industrial farm in one of the Carolinas (south, i think). Sorry i don't have the time, but I'm sure you can find reference to this pretty easily.