Friday, May 1, 2009

Vol. 3: Swine flu: outright lies, hyperbole and grains of salt

In our continuing series on silliness in the management of, response to and news coverage of swine flu or Influenza A(H1N1), these tidbits:

In an article on the origins of the flu in the New York Times, writer Donald McNeil Jr. makes the strong point high in the story that there's no proof the swine flu originated in pigs.

But after toying with this concept for a while, he concedes that there is only no proof because nobody has finished checking yet.

And fourteen paragraphs into the story, he says, “It presumably is in pigs somewhere, perhaps in Mexico.”

Which is akin to arguing breathlessly that there's no proof humans aren't descended from three-legged aliens from Antares, and then conceding deep in the story that nobody actually thinks there is.

The list of scientifically illiterate countries taking it out on pork is growing. Among them, St. Lucia, Indonesia, Thailand, Honduras, Croatia, Gabon, the Philippines, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Ecuador and the United Arab Emirates are banning pork sales or pork imports.

Egypt set up farmers' riots by ordering all pigs killed, even though there's zero evidence Egyptian pigs have the flu virus.

And in Australia, the entrepreneurial Australian Crocodile Traders are hoping that fears about pork will lead to surging demand for crocodile meat.

That said, let's be clear: It's people who are spreading the flu now, not pigs. But despite that, pigs are taking a beating.

There's lots of news linking this virus to a specific industrial pig farm in Mexico, and more recently, arguing that this virus is descended from a virus in an industrial pig farm in the U.S. in 1998. There is a fair amount of pushback from the pork industry and others, arguing that this virus is as much a human virus or a bird virus as a pig virus, and that pigs are being unfairly treated.

Said the National Pork Producers Council: “Preliminary investigations have determined that none of the people infected with the hybrid flu had contact with hogs. This virus is different, very different from that found in pigs. The hybrid virus never has been identified in hogs in the United States or anywhere in the world. The hybrid virus is contagious and is spreading by human-to-human transmission.”

Some of that is true, and some is spin. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has concluded that the pig connection is real, even though—just like humans—the virus has a diverse lineage. Asked if the current virus is clearly of pig origin, CDC chief virologist Ruben Donis said, “Definitely.”

As of early today, May 1, the CDC reported that in the United States there were 141 confirmed cases of the flu in 19 states, and one death.

Globally, according to the World Health Organization, there were 365 confirmed cases in 13 countries, and nine deaths—eight in Mexico and the one U.S. victim, who was a Mexican toddler.

Here's a site to check on what's happening on the flu in Hawai'i, where no cases have yet been confirmed:

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

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