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This item was posted on April 25, 2009, and it was categorized as Health, Public health, flu pandemic, swine flu.
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Possible link to massive hog farming operation in Mexican town


This simulation shows how a moderately contagious pandemic flu could spread in the United States. Each dot portrays a Census tract and changes color from green to red as more people come down with the disease, and then back to green as people recover. (The model emerged from research by scientists from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and Los Alamos National Laboratory.)


NOTE: Please make sure to see the latest updates at the end of this post, including news that Mexican health officials delayed informing the United States about the developing swine flu outbreak because of a “paperwork” issue.

The swine flu outbreak is spreading, and health officials no longer believe that it can be contained. 

“It’s clear that this is widespread,” ABC News is quoting the CDC’s Dr. Anne Schuchat as saying. “We do not think that we can contain the spread of this virus.”

I don’t usually cover public health in this blog, but I have a sense that the full significance of what’s happening has not yet been widely reported and appreciated. So I thought I’d lend my voice to getting the word out. 

As of about 5 p.m. MDT Saturday, here’s what was happening (again, see Sunday’s updates at the end):

* MSNBC (among others) is reporting suspected cases of swine flu in Minnesota and Massachussets (in addition to previously reported cases in New York, mentioned below). Eleven cases of swine flu have been confirmed in the United States so far.

* A British Airways cabin crew member has been hospitalized with flu-like symptoms after a flight from Mexico City to Heathrow airport in London, Agence France Press and others are reporting. The crew member is said to be responding well to treatment. Update 4/26/09: He has tested negative and is reported to be back at work.

Reuters is reporting that the Kansas Department of Health and Environment has confirmed at least two cases of swine flu in the state.

According to ABC News, health officials in New York City confirm that at least eight of about 100 students complaining of flu-like symptoms “likely” have swine flu. 

* The New York Times is reporting that 24 new cases of swine flu have been reported in Mexico City. At least 61 people have died, and 1,000 others are infected.

* Mexican President Felipe Calderon has declared an emergency, giving him the power to order quarantines and suspend public events, according to Bloomberg.com

As new developments unfold rapidly, a Twitter feed has been established by Veratect, a biosurveillance company that “supports informed decisions across a broad range of public and private institutions.”

Veratect has also constructed a timeline of events in the outbreak, dating back to March 30.

This entry for April 6 in particular is very curious: 

. . . local health officials declared a health alert due to a respiratory disease outbreak in La Gloria, Perote Municipality, Veracruz State, Mexico.  Sources characterized the event as a “strange” outbreak of acute respiratory infection, which led to bronchial pneumonia in some pediatric cases. According to a local resident, symptoms included fever, severe cough, and large amounts of phlegm. Health officials recorded 400 cases that sought medical treatment in the last week in La Gloria, which has a population of 3,000; officials indicated that 60% of the town’s population (approximately 1,800 cases) has been affected. No precise timeframe was provided, but sources reported that a local official had been seeking health assistance for the town since February.

Residents believed the outbreak had been caused by contamination from pig breeding farms located in the area. They believed that the farms, operated by Granjas Carroll, polluted the atmosphere and local water bodies, which in turn led to the disease outbreak. According to residents, the company denied responsibility for the outbreak and attributed the cases to “flu.” However, a municipal health official stated that preliminary investigations indicated that the disease vector was a type of fly that reproduces in pig waste and that the outbreak was linked to the pig farms. It was unclear whether health officials had identified a suspected pathogen responsible for this outbreak.

I’ve never heard of flies as a vector for influenza, but there may be another link between so-called “confined animal feeding operations,” or CAFOs, like Granjas Carroll, and the swine flu. David Kriby at Huffington Post describes that possible link here.

Other bloggers have gone even further in implicating Granjas Carroll, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, including Tom Philpott at Grist.

Updates 4/26/09:

* The Times (in London) is reporting that doctors in the U.S. are advising people who are worried about the swine flu outbreak to wear painters’ masks. The same story reports that on his trip to Mexico last week, President Obama met with Felipe Solis, an archaeologist who died soon after from “flu-like symptoms.” The White House says the president’s health “was never in any danger.”

* Canada has confirmed four swine flu cases among students in Nova Scotia. The students range in age from 12 to 18 and are said to have experienced mild cases of the flu. 

* Mexico’s health minister says 86 people have died from swine flu and more than 1,400 have become ill since April 13. 

* The World Health Organization is calling the swine flu outbreak “a public health emergency of international concern.” So for now, a pandemic is still a possibility, not yet a reality. 

But the spread of influenza from Mexico around the world (see new cases below) is a test of how well the world is prepared to deal with a pandemic, including one with the potential to kill tens of millions of people worldwide. And so far, things don’t look so good. Containing such a threat will depend in large measure on efficient international communication and cooperation. But the Washington Post is reporting that “U.S. public health officials did not know about a growing outbreak of swine flu in Mexico until nearly a week after that country started invoking protective measures, and didn’t learn that the deaths were caused by a rare strain of the influenza until after Canadian officials did.” Mexican officials say they informed Canada earlier because the “paperwork was easier.”

So far, 11 U.S. citizens are confirmed to have contracted swine flu — in California, Texas and Kansas. At least two are hospitalized; all are either better now or recovering. Other possible cases in New York, Massachusetts and Minnesota are being investigated. 

* Since Saturday, a number of new confirmed and suspected swine flu cases have turned up outside of Mexico and the United States. Authorities in New Zealand confirm 10 cases of influenza associated with travel to Mexico. In addition, two suspected cases of swine flu involving travelers returning from Mexico are reported in France, and three additional cases in Spain.

* French authorities are also reporting that three family members have been hospitalized with flu symptoms after returning from a trip to California. 

* “Contagion on a Small Planet” by Andrew Revkin at DotEarth offers perspective and additional links.

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