It is time to set the record straight. Labeling the disease swine flu is misleading, and there is no evidence that this particular strain originated from swine. People cannot get the illness from eating pork.
Moreover, the flu virus (H1N1 influenza A) is spreading from person to person, and early investigations indicate that none of the people infected in the U.S. had contact with swine.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this virus was originally referred to as "swine flu" because laboratory testing showed that many of the genes in this new virus were very similar to influenza viruses that normally occur in pigs in North America. But further study has shown that this new virus is very different from what normally circulates in North American pigs. It has two genes from flu viruses that normally circulate in pigs in Europe and Asia and avian genes and human genes. Scientists call this a "quadruple reassortant" virus.
All the talk of associating this flu virus with swine has hurt the swine industry. Consumers hold the key to how quickly pork prices rebound from the dip they experienced following the current influenza outbreak, according to a Texas AgriLife Extension Service economist, Dr. David Anderson. Hog prices nationwide had dropped to an average of about $59 per 100 pounds of carcass weight last Tuesday morning, down from about $62 last Thursday, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Seasonal prices for this time of year typically climb past $70 in late April and May.
"A lot of this depends on how consumers react," Anderson said. "If demand for pork declines, they've got to cut production and it means some hog farmers will go out of business. It all depends on how consumers react and how long the trade bans go on and how widespread they are in determining if this will contribute to lower prices and how long lower prices last." Another factor, he noted, is how long the trade bans go on and how widespread they are. These actions will contribute to lower prices and how long lower prices last. China and Russia implemented partial bans on imports of U.S. pork last Monday. Countries often do this, but these decisions are not science-based decisions and pork is no exception, Anderson said. In 2008, the U.S. was the leading export marketer of pork and the world's third-largest producer behind China and the European Union, Anderson said. Among beef, pork and poultry, pork is the most consumed meat in the world, he said. The following are some key facts about U.S. pork production, according to Anderson:
Texas had a population of 1.1 million hogs and pigs as of Dec. 1, 2008. The U.S. is the world's largest pork exporter, with a 39 percent market share in 2008. In 2008 the largest export markets for U.S. pork were Japan, China, Mexico and Russia.
The pork industry has already had to endure record-high feed costs in 2008, Anderson said. The industry has had to adjust to those added expenses by reducing production. Rapid, uninformed reaction to (recent reports of) influenza caused sharp declines in hog futures prices and the stock prices of pork-producing companies on Monday.
Wild Hogs: No Indication of Flu Danger
You may catch the flu from your sick hunting buddy, but there's no evidence that you will catch it from domestic or wild hogs, according to the Texas Animal Health Commission (TAHC). There is no evidence that the new strain of H1N1 influenza is in domestic or wild hogs. This disease is being spread from person to person.
"Several hunters have asked about the safety of hunting wild hogs," said Dr. Bob Hillman, Texas state veterinarian and head of the TAHC, the state's livestock and poultry health regulatory agency.
"To repeat, there is no evidence that wild hogs are involved in this flu outbreak. Always, however, we advise wild hog hunters to protect themselves against potential exposure to swine brucellosis, a totally different disease that is not related in any way to the flu. We know from test results that about 10 percent of wild hogs carry swine brucellosis, a bacterial disease.
"When processing or butchering a wild hog, hunters should protect themselves against the blood and bodily fluids of wild hogs," he said. "When the wild hog meat is cooked, any swine brucellosis bacteria is destroyed by the heat."
Trappers who catch wild hogs and owners of domestic swine also should practice good biosecurity to prevent spreading the flu to pigs.
"Don't get around swine if you become ill, and avoid having visitors near your pigs," said Dr. Hillman. "Have someone else feed the animals if you become ill with flu-like symptoms. Notify your health department or the TAHC so your pigs can be monitored for disease. Also, as a basic biosecurity measure, you should always wash your hands after handling animals."
Dr. Hillman said wild hog trappers and domestic swine owners should call their veterinarian if their swine develop a sudden onset of respiratory illness. The nearest TAHC area office or TAHC headquarters also should be notified so testing can be conducted according to the flu response protocol. The TAHC headquarters may be reached at 800-550-8242.
According to the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) officials have tentatively confirmed that swine from a herd in Alberta, Canada, have tested positive for the H1N1 strain currently causing illness in humans. A Canadian carpenter who had been in Mexico, upon return, was exhibiting flu-like symptoms, did work on the Alberta farm, and subsequently the family and swine on the farm became ill.
First and foremost, this detection does not change the situation here in the United States. There have been no reports that the novel H1N1 strain currently causing illness in humans is in U.S. swine.
As a precaution, people with flu-like symptoms should not interact with swine, and swine showing influenza symptoms should be kept away from the public and brought to the attention of the State Animal Health Authorities or USDA.
Proper biosecurity measures, as in any influenza situation, will protect against the spread of virus.
If you own swine, consider the following practices to enhance the biosecurity on your farm to prevent the disease from being transmitted to your herd:
Workers should shower and change into farm-specific clothes and shoes before entering swine facilities. Workers with flu symptoms should stay home and be encouraged to see a doctor immediately. Restrict the entry of people into your facility to only workers and essential service personnel. Prevent international visitors from entering your facilities. Ensure adequate ventilation in facilities to minimize re-circulation of air inside animal housing facilities. Vaccinate pigs against the influenza. Contact your veterinarian if swine exhibit flu-like or respiratory illness, especially if the onset or presentation of the illness is unusual. Then notify your Texas Animal Health Commission area office or the Austin headquarters at 800-550-8242, after you have contacted your veterinarian.
Here in the United States, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is actively working to develop an H1N1 vaccine for swine, just as the CDC is doing for humans.
Jeffrey Stapper is the Agricultural and Natural Resources Agent for Nueces County. Readers may contact him at 767-5217.