What does the title bring to your mind? Does it return you to the day you threatened to hold your breath until your mom gave in on another ice cream bar? Do you think of holding your breath in suspense during an intense scene in a horror movie, knowing someone or something was going to jump out of the dark? Currently, for me, the title describes my response to the emergence of the pandemic H1N1 (2009) influenza virus.
No, I am not holding my breath as I travel on those airplanes packed with travelers from around the world! Rather, I am holding my breath in anticipation of the time when pigs become infected with the pandemic virus. At the time of writing, only one herd in North America had been identified as being infected with the virus. The ultimate depopulation and disposal of this infected herd in Canada does not bode well for the next herd to become infected. I am hopeful that subsequent infected herds may not suffer the same fate.
In my 15 years with the AASV, I recall no issue that has displayed the high level of uncertainty of outcome as does the pandemic H1N1 (2009) influenza. A number of factors add to the uncertainty. First and foremost is the zoonotic potential of this virus. Although it has not yet been found in pigs, it is known that the virus can infect pigs, causing mild clinical signs indistinguishable from other influenza-like illness. The spread from pigs to people is untested, but it would be naive to expect that this virus could never be transmitted in that manner. All of this attracts the attention of public-health authorities and raises the possibility of their actions affecting pig production.
Other actions affecting pig production may be taken by state animal-health officials. Upon the first diagnosis of pandemic H1N1 (2009) influenza in pigs, state veterinarians will be forced (perhaps by state public-health officials) to make a number of decisions concerning the movement and outcome of pigs in their state, as well as pigs moving through the state. There may be political pressure on state officials to take actions not supported by science or even common sense.
Uncertainty also exists in the pork chain. The perceptions of consumers, retailers, and packers could all impact the points of purchase up and down the chain, ranging from the sale of market hogs all the way to the meat counter in a grocery store. The misperceptions of consumers over the safety of pork could have devastating effects on the entire chain. Without a concerted effort by all chain participants, these misperceptions may not be easily corrected. The research has shown that pork does not carry the virus and is safe to eat. The message is simple (Pork is SAFE!) but the delivery of that message to the consumer may be drowned out by other noise.
Uncertainty, while an enemy to the pork industry, is a friend to the activists who desire an end to animal agriculture. Uncertainty provides an opportunity for these activists to insinuate that modern pork production is somehow to blame for the pandemic H1N1 (2009) influenza virus, along with a plethora of other ills. Given the opportunity, activists will readily fill gaps in information and knowledge with their own propaganda and even outright lies.
The uncertainty extends beyond the issues immediately surrounding influenza. The pork industry is vulnerable due to the dismal economics facing producers. Rather than enjoying a late spring rally in pig prices, producers felt the sting of a market pounded by domestic fear of influenza and the reality of trade barriers to exports. Many of these same issues are lingering today. The popular press has provoked some misperceptions. One of the most blatantly irresponsible acts of the popular press is the use of the misnomer “swine flu.” This name seems to be firmly entrenched in the popular vernacular. Sadly, it is damaging to the image of pork and to consumer confidence, while not accurately describing the virus or its origins.
The World Health Organization announced in July that pandemic H1N1 (2009) influenza was “unstoppable” and called for vaccination of humans. Health-care workers are to receive priority for vaccine, but nowhere are pork producers and swine veterinarians mentioned in the plans for vaccination. Perhaps I am biased, but it makes sense to me that reduction of transmission of the pandemic virus to swine herds might be considered a priority. If vaccination can achieve that, then the priority list should be expanded.
Huge amounts of resources, time, and effort have already been expended by AASV, National Pork Board, and National Pork Producers Council since the initial discovery of the pandemic virus in Mexico. It has required a great deal of communication and collaboration between and among many organizations, governmental agencies (both animal health and public health), universities, the press, and other individuals. The work is ongoing and I expect it to be ongoing for some time. If this work is successful, then it will result in minimal disruption if the virus arrives in pigs.
There are dire predictions of a resurgence of the pandemic H1N1 (2009) influenza. The uncertainty remains as we await the fall influenza season and the potential of the pandemic virus spreading to more people and into pigs. As we wait, there are some things we can do, including establishing an effective national surveillance system for influenza in swine, heightening biosecurity, researching novel vaccine technologies for pigs, and establishing response plans (farm, state, and national). This H1N1 virus may not be the last one we see that can infect humans. If more are to come, we need to learn the lessons well the first time around.
I am hoping you will hear a sigh of relief come from Perry later this year! Until then, I am still holding my breath.
-- Tom Burkgren, DVM