by Charles Lemos, Wed Apr 29, 2009 at 11:32:22 PM EDT
Mexico's Health Minister José Angel Córdova announced today that Government of Mexico has ordered all nonessential activity of the federal government and private business to cease for a five day period in an effort to contain the swine flu epidemic. The decision came as global health authorities warned that the swine flu was threatening to bloom into a pandemic. Friday is May Day which is a holiday in Mexico so the closure is in effect just a two day 'forced holiday'. All nonessential private businesses must also close for that period but essential services like transport, supermarkets, trash collection, hospital will remain open.
As of Monday the daily economic impact of the epidemic was costing Mexico City alone $57 million USD. Mexico's central bank warned the outbreak will likely deepen the nation's recession, hurting an economy that was already hit hard by the global financial crisis. Mexico's economy shrank 8 percent in the first quarter year-over-year. Clearly the impact to the Mexican economy and its ripple effect across the globe will continue to mount. Egypt, for example, took the highly unusual step of ordering its entire 400,000 swine herd culled sparking riots among Egypt's Coptic Christian minority. The order hits the the slum-dwelling Zebaleen rubbish collectors who rely on the hogs for their livelihood. The Zebaleen feed their animals with a country's food scraps. The war on the poor often finds the flimsy of excuses and Egypt's response, widely condemned, is little more than an assault on a beleaguered minority.
As the New York Times reports efforts to contain the epidemic at borders are not likely to be effective. The most effective solution, according to health experts, is to mitigate.
"Containment is no longer a feasible option," Dr. Keiji Fukuda, deputy director general of the World Health Organization, announced Monday night in Geneva after a meeting of the agency's emergency committee on the spreading swine flu virus. "The world should focus on mitigation. We recommend not closing borders or restricting travel."
Many countries are still ignoring that advice. The globe is a confusing welter of bans, advisories and alerts on some pork and some people.
Closing borders is dangerous because many goods needed in a pandemic are made abroad, said Dr. Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, including most masks, gowns and gloves, electrical circuits for ventilators and communications gear, and pharmaceutical drugs and the raw materials to make them. (For example, most suppliers of shikimic acid, the base ingredient in the antiviral drug Tamiflu, are in China.)
"You cut those off and you cripple the health care system," he said. "Our global just-in-time economy means we are dependent on others." Much of our food is from overseas. "A Kellogg's Nutri-Grain bar has ingredients from nine countries in it," he noted.
The fallback position, experts said, is mitigation, the use of "nonpharmaceutical measures." They include personal ones like washing hands and wearing a mask, occupational ones like working from home or arranging care for children who are sick or whose schools close, neighborhood-level ones like closing theaters, museums or restaurants, and metropolitan-wide ones like shutting a school system or canceling a major league ballgame.
No doubt, developments are moving fast. While Mexico reported another 17 deaths potentially linked to the swine flu epidemic, bringing the total to as many as 176. At least ten countries have now reported cases of the H1N1 strain, ranging from New Zealand to Spain. But the most noteworthy development was in Texas where officials said a 22-month-old boy had died while on a family visit from Mexico, the first confirmed swine flu death outside Mexico. Another critical development was in Spain which reported the first case in Europe of swine flu in a person who had not been to Mexico. The developments moved the World Health Organization's (WHO) to raise the level of alert.
"Influenza pandemics must be taken seriously precisely because of their capacity to spread rapidly to every country in the world," WHO Director General Margaret Chan told a news conference in Geneva on Wednesday as she raised the official alert level to phase 5, the last step before a pandemic.
"The biggest question is this: how severe will the pandemic be, especially now at the start," Chan said. But she added that the world "is better prepared for an influenza pandemic than at any time in history."
Meanwhile in Paris, the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) said the pathogen was "not a classic human virus... but a virus which includes [in] its characteristics swine, avian and human virus components."
"The virus has not been isolated in animals to date. Therefore, it is not justified to name this disease swine influenza," the Paris-based OIE said in a statement.
It said that science would show whether the virus was circulating among farm animals and the outcome should determine whether countries were justified in banning pig imports.
"Currently, only findings related to the circulation of this virus in pigs in zones of countries having human cases would justify trade measures on the importation of pigs from these countries," it said.
In an interview with AFP, OIE Director General Bernard Vallat described the virus as a "cocktail" of four different strains.
"The background of these strains has been reconstituted," he said.
"The avian strain is of American origin, and of the two swine strains, one is American origin and the other appears to be Asian. The human strain is American."
He added: "There is no proof that this virus, currently circulating among humans, really is of animal origin. There is no element to support this."
Vallat argued that "it would be really unfair to penalise pig farmers, who depend on their output for their livelihood, by talking about a risk which is not at all proven."
The OIE noted that past epidemics of human influenza epidemics with animal origin had been named after their geographical origin, such as Spanish flu or Asian flu.
"It would be logical to call this disease 'North American influenza'," it suggested.
Actually the Spanish flu didn't originate in Spain (it is believed to have originated in China) but its effect where first fully felt in Spain hence the name and just to clear by American Dr. Vallat means the Western Hemisphere, not the United States. Whatever the authorities so choose to name the strain remains to be seen but I am more interested in following the ties of the virus to Granjas Carroll, the joint venture of Smithfield Foods. Smithfield continues to deny any responsibility.
"We are very comfortable that our pork is safe," Smithfield president and chief executive Larry Pope said in an interview. "This is not a swine issue. This is a human-to-human issue."
Mr. Pope said Mexican authorities have been on at least some Smithfield farms in Mexico for "several days" testing hog herds to confirm that there is "no incidence of this virus on our farms."
In recent days scores of Internet postings have attempted to link a large Smithfield hog operation in the Mexican state of Veracruz and the outbreak of swine flu that has cost more than 100 Mexican lives. Mr. Pope characterized the postings as "rumors," adding, "We don't have any reason to believe that this has anything to do with Smithfield at all."
Mr. Pope is rather coy. It is, of course, a human to human issue at this point but the virus jumped from swine to human at some point and while none of his workers at his Granjas Carroll JV, the largest confined animal feeding operation in Mexico, 30% of the nearby community of La Gloria fell ill and the first known case, Edgar Hernandez, has been traced to the locality. It is the case that strains of flu affect different species differently. Just because it is not lethal for hogs doesn't mean that it isn't lethal for humans. The point is more that Smithfield among others bear responsibility for this by failing to properly tackle the environmental contamination in the area, especially that of the clouds of flies that are drawn the so-called "manure lagoons" created by the CAFOs.
But this story grows ever more interesting by the day and points again to how the poor often pay the steepest price in the cause of enriching the rich. It turns out that farmers from La Gloria are members of a rather famous group, el Movimiento de Los 400 Pueblos, a group of thousands of farmers who claim that their land was stolen from them by the Mexican Government in 1992. Los 400 Pueblos - The 400 Towns - are famous for their naked marches through the streets of Mexico City in an effort to reclaim their lands. Globalization is seen as such a force for good in the world among the rich and powerful but globalization has a dark and very sinister side as the events in La Gloria and this phase five epidemic are now demonstrating.