An article just published in Scientific American says that American pig farms are virtually "are virtually "flu factories." Industry results of pig flu tests are kept confidential, and the pork industry is reluctant to share data with health officials.
Earlier in 2010, the CDC and U.S. Department of Agriculture finally implemented a surveillance system for pig-borne illness -- but the program requires the support of pork producers.
"National Pork Producers Council ... spokesman Dave Warner acknowledged that some producers may be averse to reporting sick pigs because they're afraid that the government will quarantine them.”
Flu viruses do not discriminate among their human and animal hosts. In fact, influenza infects birds, pigs, people and other animals alike, and when the viruses infect different species they can swap genes, leading to new types of influenza viruses that contain a mix of swine, human and avian viruses all wrapped up into one.
Such was the case with the 2009 H1N1 virus, which contained genetic material from birds, humans and pigs, even though it was initially dubbed "swine flu."
In reality, true "swine flu" refers to the respiratory disease that occurs among pigs, and there is increasing attention being placed on these farm animals as a potential source of a new pandemic virus.
Is the World at Risk From a Mutant Swine Flu?
A pig respiratory tract is receptive to both human and bird flu viruses, making the animal a potential breeding ground in which a mutant virus could evolve and possibly be transmitted to people.
Under normal circumstances, however, swine flu viruses (again, I'm referring to the actual pig flu virus and NOT the 2009 H1N1 virus) do not normally infect people, and those who are impacted are typically those who have close contact with the animals, such as workers in pig factory farms or children that spend time near pigs at fairs.
In 2002, one study of pig farm workers and residents in Wisconsin found that 17 of 74 had antibodies to swine flu viruses in their blood, indicating they'd been infected. In contrast, only 1 of 114 blood samples taken from the general population harbored such antibodies.
There have been documented cases of people spreading swine flu to others as well, although according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this did not result in a community outbreak.
Still, it appears that cases of swine flu in humans may be increasing. The CDC noted that there has been approximately one case of human infection with swine flu every one to two years, up until the end of 2005. From that time through February 2009, 12 cases of human infection with swine flu were reported, which is still far from an outbreak by any standards.
Just How Widespread is Swine Flu on Pig Farms?
Given that there are about 1 billion domesticated pigs around the world, humans have close contact with them, and the virus, like all flu viruses, is capable of spreading from pigs to people and from person to person, it's not unreasonable to suggest that pig farms could amount to "flu factories."
As the CDC states, "H1N1 and H3N2 swine flu viruses are endemic among pig populations in the United States and something that the industry deals with routinely."
As it stands there's no way to know exactly how many cases of swine flu occur on pig farms each year because the pork industry is keeping quiet. But given the close proximity that large numbers of pigs in factory farms are raised in, coupled with their often-poor health due to inadequate feed, inhumane treatment and stress, I wouldn't be surprised if it's rampant.
Currently the CDC and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are in the process of developing a surveillance system to monitor swine flu and other ailments in pigs, but if they really want to curb the spread of swine flu, abolishing factory farms and returning to small, family-run farms -- where pigs are kept healthy and raised in natural conditions -- would be the first step.
As in people, flu will spread like wildfire among animals that are immunocomprimised, unhealthy and crowded together in close quarters. The solution lies not in better monitoring, but in establishing healthier, more sustainable farms that raise a small, manageable number of pigs outdoors, and on their natural diet.
Should You be Especially Worried About a Mutant Swine Flu?
Even if a swine flu virus were to mutate into a form that's easily spread among people, I wouldn't panic.
There is no evidence that a swine flu virus would produce an illness any different from the everyday flu, and in fact according to the CDC:
"Symptoms of swine flu in people are expected to be similar to the symptoms of regular human seasonal influenza and include fever, lethargy, lack of appetite and coughing. Some people with swine flu also have reported runny nose, sore throat, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.”
In other words, swine flu in humans is pretty much the same as the regular seasonal flu. You probably wouldn't even know the difference, unless you had recently visited a county fair and knew you had been exposed to a sick pig.
So while it is possible for flu viruses to be transmitted from pigs to people (and vice versa), this is not an issue I would let keep you up at night. Remember that even in the case of H1N1, the "mutant" human-avian-pig influenza virus, the risks were greatly overstated.
The truth is that any flu, whether a human, bird or pig variant, can be dangerous, even deadly -- but flu prevention is actually quite simple.
I strongly believe it begins with optimizing your vitamin D levels, and maintaining those healthy levels year-round. So I urge you to get your and your children's vitamin D levels tested, and if found deficient, follow my recommendations for optimizing your levels.
Do this, and you'll all be far less likely to catch the flu. It also helps if you minimize your sugar and processed food intake, as these clearly will impair your immune system.
This is the other major factor that could increase your chances of catching the flu: an impaired immune system. Optimizing your vitamin D levels will help in this area, but so will leading a healthy lifestyle with plenty of exercise and sleep, fresh foods and veggies, and not a lot of sugars and grains…or stress.
If you're healthy, the flu will be powerless against you, so as always making healthful lifestyle choices is your best bet to staying flu-free … and this is true no matter what type of flu you're dealing with -- human, avian, swine or otherwise.