15/02/2015 8:22 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST

Combat Swine Flu by Going Vegan


You can't get swine flu from eating "properly handled and prepared pork" or avian flu from "properly handled and cooked poultry and eggs", according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) - which means that all bets may be off with regard to pork and poultry products that are improperly handled accidentally and for anyone whose hands come into contact with the knife that cut up the meat or with the juices that were left on the cutting board. As long as people eat meat and eggs, they'll continue to put all of us at risk of contracting swine-origin influenza viruses, avian flu and other potentially deadly illnesses.

More than 200 people have reportedly died of swine flu in less than two months in India. The swine flu pandemic has, in fact, put all of India on high alert. More than 5,000 people have tested positive for the virus, according to various reports (see for example, here). It is said to have killed 200,000 people around the world during the 2009 pandemic.

Dr Michael Greger, who focuses on issues regarding public health and animal agriculture, explains the history of swine flu like this: "The worst plague in human history was triggered by an H1N1 avian flu virus, which jumped the species barrier from birds to humans and went on to kill as many as 50 to 100 million people in the 1918 flu pandemic. No disease, war or famine ever killed so many people in so short a time. We then passed the virus to pigs, where it has continued to circulate, becoming one of the most common causes of respiratory disease on North American pig farms."

WebMD describes swine flu this way: "The disease originally was nicknamed swine flu because the virus that causes the disease originally jumped to humans from the live pigs in which it evolved. The virus is a 'reassortant' - a mix of genes from swine, bird, and human flu viruses. Scientists are still arguing about what the virus should be called, but most people know it as the H1N1 swine flu virus."

The CDC says, "This virus was originally referred to as 'swine flu' because laboratory testing showed that many of the genes in the virus were very similar to influenza viruses that normally occur in pigs (swine) in North America. But further study has shown that the 2009 H1N1 is very different from what normally circulates in North American pigs. It has two genes from flu viruses that normally circulate in pigs in Europe and Asia and bird (avian) genes and human genes. Scientists call this a 'quadruple reassortant' virus."

Whether we can trace this particular strain back to pigs in North America, Europe or Asia, swine flu is referred to that way because, as the name suggests, it is common in pigs, although it is now considered a human disease.

While there are an increasing number of vegetarians and vegans in some places, on the whole, we are eating more animals and animal-derived products than ever in human history. According to the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), "Over the past 50 years, global meat production has almost quadrupled from 78 million tonnes in 1963 to a current total of 308 million tonnes per year. The IAASTD predicts that this trend will continue, especially because the growing urban middle classes in China and other emerging economies will adapt to the so-called western diet of people in North America and Europe with its burgers and steaks."

To meet this kind of demand, the meat, egg and dairy industries have chosen space and productivity over the welfare of animals. Most animals raised for food today are housed in extremely filthy, severely crowded conditions without access to fresh air, sunlight or space. They are denied the fulfillment of their most basic needs and are not permitted to express their most natural behaviour, as they are typically kept crammed in cages or stalls, in which they cannot even spread a single wing or turn around, or are crowded into sheds with thousands of others. Such conditions are breeding grounds for disease, and viruses can rapidly mutate into those which are highly pathogenic.

Dr Greger confirms that crowded farm conditions, close proximity between farms and the transport of live animals are to blame. He says, "The remaining two gene segments of the H1N1 swine flu virus now spreading in human populations around the world appear to come from a swine flu viral lineage circulating in Eurasia, where similar conditions may be to blame". In a piece he wrote on the subject, he goes on to quote a European Commission-funded researcher studying the situation in Europe who said, "Influenza [in pigs] is closely related to pig density." China keeps farmed pigs in similar crowded conditions, and India is also moving towards an intensive farming system for chickens and other animals.

Farmers know that these conditions means farms are rife with disease, which can spread quickly. Animals on farms are therefore pumped full of antibiotics, but this results in antibiotic-resistant superbugs and aggressive mutations of pathogens. And vaccines used on such farms may be having a similar effect.

The only real way to combat the emergence and spread of diseases such as swine flu is to stop eating animals and animal-derived products. As public health specialist Dr Aysha Akhtar explains, "By densely confining animals by the billions to feed our large appetite for animal products, we are unwittingly accelerating the mutation of the influenza virus into strains more deadly than we have yet seen."

If you need help in making the switch to a plant-based diet, order a free Vegetarian/Vegan Starter Kit from PETA India.