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By John Stephenson, on Animals and Society Institute
When the "swine flu pandemic" began grabbing headlines, the meat industry (oops, sorry, they favor protein industry, because it sounds healthier) shifted into hyperdrive. Using their political influence, they persuaded government agencies to create another name change. "Swine" was replaced with "H1N1" Pork, after all, is a heavyweight $97 billion per year business with political muscle.
Nevertheless, the genetic makeup of H1N1 suggests that it originated in swine.
Viruses are living proof that simplicity rules. They are just a piece of nucleic acid and some proteins. H1N1 has only eight genetic elements. This minimalism gives virus strains incredible flexibility. Like a game where you exchange cards with your opponent, newly introduced viruses can trade genetic information with a virus that already lives within the next host organism. Because this creates a fresh recombinant, the host immune system may be poorly equipped to fight back.
The H1N1/swine virus is transmittable between pigs, birds, and humans. That jump does not come from eating pig meat, but simply from contact with an infected individual.
The crowded, stressful conditions in factory farms are prime breeding grounds for disease. And for diseases to infect workers. And for workers to ultimately pass it on to other people they contact.
The tragedy is that in many minds the pigs get the blame.
In Egypt, the government declared a health emergency and ordered the slaughter of all the country's 300,000 pigs. As police and soldiers moved to carry out the directive people threw stones and bottles in protest, but that only slowed the process.
There had been no reported cases of Swine Flu in Egypt. Pig farmers, most of whom are Coptic Christians, charged that the primarily Muslim government simply wanted to hurt them economically. If true, that would not be the first time politicians have sacrificed the lives of animals to advance their own agendas. If not true, the kill order came from not understanding the reality of Swine Flu.
People who keep pigs as pets often say their charges are more intelligent than dogs. (My cats agree that it must be true.) Pigs can even be taught to play computer games.
Françoise Wemelsfelder, a researcher at the Scottish Agricultural College, found that people who don't live with pigs intuitively understand porcine personality and behavior. Is that because under the surface, down at the level of sentience, we find common ground with them?
So I think of those Egyptian pigs and mourn the loss of their innocent lives. Perhaps they are symbolic of the larger toll that hidden agendas and lack of knowledge exacts on people and other animals. Yet each one of those pigs had their own discrete lives with individual pleasures, preferences, and purposes. Their lives counted to them. They should count to us also.
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