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Flu Experts Probe Mexican Pig Farms, But Worry About Public Misconceptions

Health experts have stressed that pigs are the origin of only one part of the virus, and there is no danger from eating properly prepared pork.
(RFE/RL) -- Mexico first noticed the new swine flu virus after a woman died in the southern state of Oaxaca on April 13.

Mexican authorities say they haven't yet determined the origin of the outbreak that has now spread throughout the world. But residents of a small town called La Gloria, high in Mexico's Veracruz Mountains, think their community is ground zero for the new disease.

The town is home to Mexico's earliest confirmed case of the new flu strain -- a 4-year-old boy who was among more than 450 residents who had complained of respiratory problems and other flu symptoms weeks before the outbreak.

The residents say they all developed symptoms similar to the new disease. They are blaming contamination spread by pig waste at nearby breeding farms that are co-owned by a U.S. company.

A local health official in the area says the disease came from flies that carried the infection from exposed fecal material into the town.

A team of international health experts is traveling to La Gloria to investigate the claims. They include specialists from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Animal Health Organization, and a U.S. epidemiologist.

Public Confusion

Nevertheless, health officials say they are concerned about public misconceptions over the disease.

The Food and Agriculture Organization's chief veterinarian, Joseph Domenech, has repeated bulletins announced by the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that there is no risk of getting swine flu from eating pork.

Richard Besser, the acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says there is a fair amount of misconception around the world about the disease. He stresses that pigs were the origin of only one component of the flu strain now afflicting people worldwide.

He says the misconception that people could become contaminated by eating pork is harmful -- harmful to pork producers but also harmful to people who want to protect themselves from getting the infection.

Besser says health officials are now discussing if there is a better way to describe the disease that will not lead to inappropriate action by people.

Indeed, health investigators have yet to determine the risk of contracting the new flu strain from exposure to live pigs or unsanitary conditions at pig farms. But they are sure that a bigger threat of pandemic is the fact that the disease is transmitted from person-to-person.

That means that, for example, fears about possible contamination from live pigs or farms appear to be unwarranted for now. Nick Phin, a flu expert at the U.K. Health Protection Agency, says that calling the disease "swine flu" is misleading.

"This virus that we are dealing with we think is a variation of a swine influenza virus that has been circulating in the United States. What is different is that there is an element of swine influenza from Europe and Asia which has then somehow gotten into the genetic structure to make this a new subtype," Phin says.

"Within the virus, there are elements of a North American avian influenza, a North American swine influenza, some human influenza, and then this Eurasian swine influenza as well," he continues. So it's a bit of a mixing pot."

No Danger From Pork

Most importantly, the World Health Organization (WHO) says, is the fact that the disease is transmitted from human to human. That means bans on imports of pork meat that have been imposed by countries like Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, China, and Indonesia will do nothing to protect people in those countries.

WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl says the most prudent measures taken by governments to slow the spread of the disease are aimed at preventing human-to-human transmission in areas where infections have been confirmed.

"Certainly some of the things that we have seen done have been very prudent -- such as the closing of schools both in New York and in Mexico City. This is one of the things that we would talk about in terms of mitigation measures at this point -- what we call social distancing. You reduce the ability of that virus to transmit," Hartl says.

Hartl says this can be done by preventing people from congregating, by closing schools or businesses, for example.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has suggested that chaos and panic are being fomented by fears that the disease can be contracted by eating pork. He has urged the people of his country to stay calm and to continue eating pork -- being careful that it is properly cooked.

Swine flu hasn't passed over Israel -- where religious beliefs of both Jews and Muslims prohibit eating pork. There are now two confirmed cases in the Jewish state.

Deputy Health Minister Yakov Litzman, a member of an ultrareligious party, has said that the term "swine flu" should not be used because it contains the name of the animal banned by Judaism. He has suggested that the virus be called "Mexican flu."

Lobbyists from the pig-farming industry in the United States also want a new name for the flu strain, saying it should be called the "North American flu."