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A Flu By Any Other Name – Cause for Alarm on the Farm

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May 4, 2009

Albany, NY - New York state agriculture officials are urging hog farm operators to step up their biosecurity measures as the fast-moving new strain of influenza continues to spread. In email messages sent last week, the New York Division of Animal Industry urged those running the state's 450 commercial hog operations to screen for sick workers and limit visitors to their facilities.

Uncertainty over the flu's origin persists. The World Health Organization has stopped calling it "swine flu," and there's doubt as to whether the origin of the H1N1 virus is an industrial pig farm in Mexico, near where the first case was documented. However, industrial animal feeding operations may well prove to be the source, according to an expert who predicted a situation much like the one that is now unfolding - last year.

Bob Martin, senior officer of the Pew Environment Group, says his organization released a report warning that unsafe practices on industrial farms could make them breeding grounds for new strains of flu. It focused on pork and poultry production methods.

"A year ago, we released a report and said, 'This is a very strong worry we have.' We really, at the time, were saying it's not a matter of 'if,' but 'when.'"

Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) can put workers in close contact with animals eight hours a day, in crowded conditions that allow the animals to pass viruses between them that, Martin explains, can mutate and jump to humans.

"Like viral incubators – there might be 10 to 15,000 pigs in one facility, and prolonged exposure of the workers staying in the barn, in the environment, with the pigs."

There are CAFOs in nearly all of New York's 62 counties. The state's swine industry is comprised of an estimated 85,000 hogs. Without regular testing, adds Martin, workers may be carrying viruses whose symptoms during the "first wave" of an outbreak are not evident.

"Regularly test CAFO workers, or the people working in this industrial hog and poultry facilities, to make sure that they're not taking the virus in the community."

The company that owns the Mexican CAFOs near where the first flu case was diagnosed says it is impossible that the first flu cases came from its facilities, because its testing has shown no virus in the swine.

The Pew study can be viewed online, at www.ncifap.org.

Mark Scheerer, Public News Service - NY