Swine flu: The real issues behind the headlines
MEXICO CITY, a vast, vibrant city of 20 million people, became quiet as schools closed, workers stayed at home and gatherings were cancelled. This was the impact of swine flu, mainly affecting Mexico, but also spreading into 20 other countries.
Fears of a deadly pandemic, whipped up by the media, have lessened as confirmed illnesses and deaths remain low: 26 deaths internationally and 1,024 people infected. 'Normal' flu strains cause 250,000 to 500,000 deaths worldwide each year, so this new virus, A(H1N1), is less aggressive so far.
Given this background, some of the actions taken against swine flu seem surreal, such as patrol cars bellowing: "Disperse! It is dangerous to gather in groups" through loud-hailers at people on the streets of Mexico city, flights to Mexico being cancelled, and 350 hotel guests and staff being forcibly quarantined for seven days in Hong Kong.
In Egypt, security forces have been brutally suppressing protests of pig farmers after the government ordered the slaughter of all 300,000 pigs in the country. No clear scientific justification has yet been provided for many of these measures. The action in Egypt could be for motives other than the flu virus, under cover of it.
But setting aside suspect actions, over-reactions and sensationalist reporting, the fact remains that not enough is known about this new virus; it could yet turn out to be a major health hazard in the short or medium term. If it doesn't, sooner or later other flu variants are likely to arise that can pose new risks to human health, especially as the profit-hungry giant agribusiness companies keep livestock in conditions that increase the chance of this happening.
A similar flu virus emerged in the US over ten years ago that has become endemic on pig farms across North America and has been evolving rapidly. So a potential threat has existed for years and some scientists have issued strong warnings about it, but research into it and prevention measures have been disgracefully insufficient.
In 1918, up to 100 million people died in just 18 months from a global pandemic caused by a H1N1 type flu virus. To stop a repeat of such horror, more research is urgently needed into the origin of each type of virus, prevention measures, and into vaccines against them. Also, new, more effective treatments need to be developed and are essential, as viruses like A(H1N1) could quickly evolve to be resistant to all existing treatments.
But governments put much higher sums of money into military expenditure than medical research, and the multinational pharmaceutical companies have shareholders' profit as their main motive and not people's health. The medicines they do develop can't be afforded by most people in the poorer countries of the world, who are the most vulnerable to diseases; there are still nearly one million deaths each year from malaria (which is easily preventable through the distribution of mosquito nets).
New health threats like swine flu add to the urgent need for public ownership of the major pharmaceutical companies. And to the need for socialist governments that, through democratic public ownership, can use the vast resources of these companies and build them up further, to rapidly research and develop disease prevention measures and new treatments for the benefit of everyone.