It is understandable for US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to recently defend the pig and hog farmers in Washington. In a media report Vilsack sharpely critised the media and others for using the phrase ‘swine flu’ instead of calling it influenza A(H1N1).
The result, he claimed, was that pig farmers has been made to suffer economically. He was further quoted as saying that ‘...it is simply not fair or correct to associate the 2009 pandemic to swine, an animal that does not play a role in the transmission of the pandemic strain’.
In contrary to Vilsack view , a recent study published in an international weekly journal of science (Nature, Vol.459/25 June 2009) titled ‘Origins and evolutionary genomics of the 2009 swine-origin H1N1 influenza A epidemic’ reveals convincing evidence that the swine has everything to do with the present pandemic outbreak.
Apparently the movement of live pigs between Eurasia and North America seems to have facilitated the mixing of different types of swine influenza viruses which led to multiple re-assortment events with the genesis of swine-originated influenza viruses. They emphasised the paramount role played by domestic pigs in the ecosystem of influenza A.
According to the authors (Gavin JD Smith., Dhanasekaran, V., et al) three pandemics of the 20th century have been triggered by a series of multiple re-assortment events in swine and was said to have emerged over a period of several years before the pandemic was recognised.
They highlighted the lack of systematic surveillance of swine flu infection in pigs that allowed for the undetected persistence and evolution of the present H1N1 strain.
For socio-political, economic and religious reasons, the WHO and agricultural and health authorities in countries like America, Europe and other parts of the world may insist the press to stick to ‘influenza A H1N1' tag when referring to the present H1N1 flu pandemic but the truth is, swine is the source of this outbreak.
Trying to disassociate swine completely from this outbreak may be helpful in the short term but it may give rise to a false sense of safety and security among the pig farmers which may be much more damaging in the long term.
The reality is that swine will continue to remain a potential public health threat due to its unique genome make-up that allows for different strains of viruses to mix freely, only to emerge as a potential pandemic human pathogen.
As such, countries involved in the pig industry should put in place systematic swine flu surveillance programmes and provide protection (vaccination) for those workers in the high risk group who may be exposed to swine influenza virus.
This rather than trying to confuse and cloud the facts surrounding the role of pigs in the present pandemic outbreak.
When the Asian countries were hit by the deadly H5N1 (bird flu) last year, America and Europe had no qualms using the phrase ‘bird flu’ instead of referring it to H5N1.
Why is it when it comes to a clear case of a swine-originated influenza virus, we have to refer to it as A H1N1 instead of just ‘swine flu’?
It appears that ‘powerful forces’ aligned to the pig industry in Europe and America were able to convince or pressure scientists including those in WHO to protect their billion-dollar industry by referring to the present pandemic as just ‘AH1N1' instead of ‘swine flu’.