The hype – one could even say hysteria – over influenza A (H1N1) virus, the so-called swine flu, is subsiding, thankfully.
Undoubtedly a concern in Mexico, where there have been dozens of confirmed deaths linked to the new strain of flu, the virus has had little impact globally despite predictions of a pandemic. Feeling better to play it safe than be sorry, officials flooded the public with information, aided by a media that painted some grim pictures of what could happen.
While the health impacts have been minimal in this country, the scare has taken a toll on a pork industry already facing tough times.
Even just a little removed from the apex of the hype, it seems ridiculous that people would stop buying pork and pork products simply at the mention of swine flu. It’s no wonder organizations such as the Canadian Pork Council and Ontario Pork were eager to put a new label on the virus. The swine reference is something of a misnomer, as the virus contains genetic components of human, avian and swine origin.
Groups proposed to call the new virus the North American influenza, using the same approach to naming as was the case with the Asian influenza and Spanish influenza outbreaks that have occurred in the past.
Although a herd in Alberta apparently caught the flu from a worker who had vacationed in Mexico, there is no chance the virus could be spread by eating pork. Not contagious in that way, the virus would at any rate be eliminated by the processing and cooking of the meat.
That bit of logic didn’t stop people jumping to conclusions. Both China and Russia, for instance, immediately banned imports of pork products from Mexico and three U.S. states, eventually including Alberta pork. Other governments have stepped up their screening processes to prevent the spread of the virus. China took the added step of quarantining travellers, including a group of Canadians.
The impact on Mexico’s tourism industry was immediate. Here, farmers took the hit. Already seeing low prices for their hogs, producers watched hog futures spiral downward.
The fallout is reminiscent of what happened to beef producers following the discovery in 2003 of a single cow with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), mad-cow disease. The resultant ban of Canadian beef products, especially exports to the U.S., caused immense hardships for the industry. The direct impact lasted for a couple of years before activity at the border became normalized. In the meantime, a $30-billion industry was at stake. A concerted effort by Canadians to eat more beef helped deal with the lost exports, and played a significant role in keeping beef producers in operation.
While the pork situation does not appear so dire, an upsurge in consumption would be helpful. It can’t hurt that the return of better weather puts us all in mind of barbeque season – throwing an extra chop or two on the grill might be just what the doctor ordered. A much better remedy than loading up on Tamiflu and breathing masks, at least at this juncture.
A don’t-worry-be-happy attitude may be too much to expect, but a little perspective would help. If there’s an upside to recent avian flu and SARS outbreaks, we’ve seen the reality is far less frightening than what we were able to imagine, flames fanned by media coverage. It’s the job of health officials, from the World Health Organization on down, to plan for the worst; there’s no reason at this point to take the scariest scenarios to heart.