Al-Ahram Weekly Online   22 - 28 October 2009
Issue No. 969
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Swine and the flu

In spite of their bad press recently, we must not forget that until a few years ago, insulin, critical to millions of diabetic people, was extracted from the pancreas of pigs, writes Farid Kamal Ramzi Stino

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The new strain of swine flu occurred by the re- assortment of genes of the human flu and avian flu (not H5N1) and two strains of swine flu. They have emerged as the new strain A/H1N1 that can infect humans and pigs, and which can be transmitted from human to human. Herein lies the seriousness of this new strain; in its current status, it does not need to move through an intermediary, as in the case of avian influenza (H5N1). As a result, it can spread very fast. It is not, however as fierce as the avian flu H5N1, which is fatal to about 66% (globally) of infected individuals. The WHO reports that Mexican influenza A/H1N1, on the other hand, has caused the death of a total of 4,100 individuals out of about 340,000 infected individuals worldwide, or just over 1%. Furthermore, most of those who died had pre-existing medical conditions including: circulatory disorders, execratory disorders, asthma, diabetes, impaired immune system, among others.

Facts about the A/H1N1 influenza:

All human cases, so far, were not infected from pigs, but transmitted from human to human. No pigs have been infected with the A/H1N1 virus, except in Canada, where a herd of pigs was infected with this virus through a human. This herd of pigs was culled. So far only 1,003 individuals were infected in Egypt with the A/H1N1 virus, with only two casualties. No Egyptian pigs were infected with this virus before they were inhumanely exterminated. Egyptian pigs did not transmit the A/H1N1 flu (a.k.a. swine flu) to Egypt's inhabitants; instead, infected individuals received the infection from individuals coming from another infected country.

It is expected that a vaccine for this virus strain can be added to the common human influenza vaccine, which is used to vaccinate millions, in late autumn of every year, starting with the 2010 vaccination season. The most vulnerable individuals to infection by this virus are pregnant women, individuals with pre-existing medical conditions, children under five years old, and seniors over 65. In addition, workers in ports and airports, and workers in the health field and tourism, are more likely to be exposed to the virus.

No one knows yet how this re-assorted virus was developed. Most likely it was a result of the combination of the human influenza virus, the avian influenza virus (not H5N1), and the swine influenza viruses that combined to form a new virus, A/H1N1. The possibility and probability of this recombination of genetic materials of these viruses is very slim. This genetic re-assortment does not happen easily. However, if it does happen, the results are usually a non-fatal mutant. This is mainly due to the fact that human receptors for the new viral strains usually do not exist.

The Egyptian pig:

Egyptian pigs are descendants of those we inherited more than 7000 years ago. The Egyptian pig is unique in its ability to resist diseases and to thrive under adverse environmental conditions. It is very hardy and prolific, but tends to be small in size. Egyptian pigs are part of the global pool of biological genetic diversity. No one knows exactly the content of the gene pool of this organism. No one knows what the future holds for us based on what lies hidden in its gene bank. It might contain, for example, a cure for a deadly disease such as cancer. We must not forget that, until a few years ago, insulin, which gives life to millions of diabetics, was extracted from the pigs' pancreas.

When the Egyptian pigs were eradicated (either by slaughter or unmerciful killing) this did not guarantee that the A/H1N1 virus would not come to Egypt. Instead, we annihilated a creature that God created and has stayed in Egypt for more than 7000 years. In all parts of the civilized world, if a butterfly or a bird or a beast or a fish is threatened by extinction from the face of the earth, all the authorities and societies will try very hard to prevent this from happening. All civilized countries of the world try to maintain diverse gene banks for ALL the beneficial, non- beneficial and harmful organisms. No one knows all the possible scientific uses that remain to be discovered within these gene banks.

The World Health Organization considered that the Egyptian political resolution to exterminate the Egyptian pigs was wrong. There was no need for the implementation of this drastic action since this flu is actually a contagious human flu. It is transmitted from human to human, and not from pigs.

The environmental dimension:

It is neither correct nor logical nor healthy to breed pigs within the physical space of Cairo or any of Egypt's cities. Pig barns must be located in uninhabited areas far from human contacts. This should be done to avoid their smell and the diseases they may carry. Pigs in Egypt play a central role in getting rid of the human organic food waste. If there are no pigs, or if pigs are not fed organic waste (as happens all over the world) there will be a problem of waste disposal in Egypt. Recycling organic waste plants should be available to transform this organic waste into organic fertilizer. These plants are not available in Egypt, at present, in sufficient numbers to deal with the amount of organic waste produced. Thus, without pigs, a big problem of the disposal of this waste occurred, and the waste was left to rot. This led to environmental pollution when these large quantities of organic waste, resulting from the consumption of about 17 million people in the Greater Cairo area alone, were left in the streets, or even buried away from populated areas.

Social dimension:

What happened to workers in industries affected by these developments, whether they are garbage collectors or sorters or pig farmers or workers in other related industries? It is well known that there are about 32 thousand people working in these industries in the area around the Greater Cairo alone. If we give them cash replacement -- it will be spent either properly or improperly - and then they would have no source of income. The presence of such a large number of unemployed workers in the slums around Cairo is a time bomb. Only God knows when it will explode.

Finding alternative sources of livelihood for these workers in garbage recycling plants may take a considerable time. These people have, therefore, found a solution for their problems; they go through the garbage that is collected from households and pick up the recyclable items from it. However, they leave all the organic waste, that once was used as pig feed, for the government to worry about, where it stays, lying in and polluting the streets of our cities.

What should be done:

1 - The former owners of pigs should be offered plots of land far away from the populated areas to establish new pig farms.

2 -- Since only the Egyptian pigs are used to our environment and to our feeding and management practices, including subsisting on organic food waste, it is not practical to try to import foreign breeds of pigs.

3 -- Hopefully, there might still be some Egyptian pigs that escaped the massacre; these pigs can be used as a nucleus for a new Egyptian pig flock. In addition, the Ministry of Agriculture has assured us that it saved thousands of viable zygotes from the Egyptian pigs before they exterminated them.

4 - This way we can maintain the gene bank from these Egyptian pigs that we inherited more than 7000 years ago.

* The writer is Professor, Department of Animal Production, Faculty of Agriculture, Cairo University.

photo: Khaled El-Fiqi

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