April 27, 2009
The World Health Organization is poised to raise the pandemic threat level as a deadly strain of the swine virus shows no sign of slowing down, according to a latest Reuters report. The New York Times reports that the number of people killed by the virus has climbed to 149 in Mexico and 8 of the 20 confirmed cases in the U.S. were diagnosed in New York City.
Reuters says the change in threat levels would indicate that the virus has mutated to the point that it is being transmitted from person to person more easily. According to an earlier Reuters report the CDC’s early analysis determined the virus strain, which is designated H1N1 (similar to the “Spanish Flu” which killed tens of millions of people in the early 20th Century) contains DNA from swine, human and avian viruses.
There are blogs that suggest ground zero for the recent swine flu outbreak are hog farms in Mexico. This is difficult to confirm and it may be too early to make the connection. But it does shine a spotlight on the very real public health threats concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), particularly hog and poultry, pose on local and global communities.
While working for the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production I met with several infectious disease experts who were concerned that raising animals in a highly concentrated manner creates the perfect condition for viruses and other potentially deadly pathogens to quickly mutate into more viral forms. One of the largest concerns for Dr. Gregory Gray, Director, Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the University of Iowa College of Public Health, was that livestock workers are not included as priority targets for pandemic surveillance, or for vaccination and treatment in a pandemic. As noted by the PCIFAP final report, “…agricultural workers serve as a bridging population between their communities and animals in large confinement facilities. Such novel viruses not only put the workers and animals at risk of infection but also may increase the risk of disease transmission to the communities where the workers live.”
When talking with experts about the possibilities of another influenza pandemic as devastating as the 1918 “Spanish Flu”, the statement I heard the most was: “It’s not if it will happen, it’s when.” If this isn’t the big one, this outbreak aptly demonstrates the need for better surveillance, so we can catch the next pandemic before the cat’s out of the bag (i.e. global transmission). Surveillance should include all pathways of transmission: animal-to-animal, animal-to-human, and human-to-human.