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Swine flu returns

(article, Culinate staff)

The most recent outbreak of swine flu in humans — the H1N1 version, back in 2009 — raised concerns about the role that factory farms might play in facilitating the spread of the virus. (The 2009 outbreak, Reuters reported earlier this summer, killed hundreds of thousands of people worldwide.) 

Now that cases of swine flu are on the uptick — a dozen people in the U.S. were diagnosed with the latest strain, H3N2v, in January, with hundreds more diagnosed this summer — those old CAFO fears are back. As Robert S. Lawrence wrote on the Atlantic website in August, the conditions on CAFOs are perfect for pandemics:

bq. The practices at these industrial operations can select for dangerous genes. The plethora of potential hosts removes a barrier to increased virulence — a virus can kill its host quickly and still have a good chance of infecting others. The co-location of swine and poultry operations in some states provides chicken viruses that mutate to infect pigs with a treasure-trove of hosts just up the road. Because humans and pigs are mammals, a swine virus may be more likely to infect humans, given our physiologic similarities. 

That's not counting the many other virus-friendly aspects of factory farms, including workers (often undocumented migrants with little access to health care) exposed all day to animals, the concentration of animal waste on CAFOs, and the fact that livestock are routinely trucked around the country. So far, we've been lucky. But not for lack of trying.