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Keeping pork on the menu makes sense during flu outbreak

May 12, 2009|By JEFF SEMLER

Pandemic, pandemonium, paranoia or panic? Any way you look at it, the recent outbreak of influenza that is sweeping the globe if you believe the "Chicken Littles" can be described by any of these terms. The illness misnamed swine flu has to date been milder than first predicted.

This flu has not turned up in ongoing monitoring of U.S. swine herds. Besides, the strain of flu that has sickened people in the United States and Mexico has proven to include human influenza and avian influenza genes, as well as swine influenza genes, according to two Kansas State University scientists. Thus the more correct name of the flu virus is H1N1.

The virus can jump from person to person with relative ease. This is no different from what we often call the seasonal flu. And while most of the cases were reported in Mexico and the U.S., some have been confirmed in countries outside North America.

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H1N1 has a number of unusual features that were initially a cause for concern. It has flared up at a time of year when the flu season is normally ending. It is new, so people probably have little or no resistance to it. And unlike the common types of seasonal flu, it appears to infect an unusually high percentage of young people. The median age of patients is 17.

Those who are old enough to remember the "swine flu" hysteria of 1976 know how things can be blown out of proportion. In 1976, there was a call for widespread vaccination and when the dust settled, only one death was linked to the virus, while 25 deaths resulted from the vaccinations.

I am not against vaccinations, nor caution, just the droning on by media and government types. To put this in perspective, at the time of this writing, there have been two deaths linked to the H1N1 flu, while in 2008, 32,000 deaths were attributed to the seasonal flu virus.

Influenza can be dangerous, so caution should always be the order of the day, but panic should not. There are antiviral medicines you can take to prevent or treat flu. There is no vaccine available right now to protect against this strain of flu.

The Centers for Disease Control advises you can help prevent the spread of germs that cause respiratory illnesses like influenza by:

o Covering your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it.

o Washing your hands often with soap and water, especially after you cough or sneeze. You can also use alcohol-based hand cleaners.

o Avoiding touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Germs spread this way.

o Trying to avoid close contact with sick people.

o Staying home from work or school if you are sick.

All this is interesting but what does it have to do with agriculture, you ask? The impact to agriculture has resulted from the inappropriate name first given to the flu. The swine industry has taken a huge hit. Pork consumption and exports have been severely depressed because of the unfounded fear that the flu could be contracted by eating pork.

It is easy to understand how foreign governments will use such outbreaks to institute protectionist trade bans. The harder thing to understand is how the man on the street can be so uninformed that he thinks he can contract the flu from bacon.

Flu viruses are airborne and thus are passed from human to human via mucus excretions propelled by coughs and sneezes.

My conclusion is at the end of the day, common sense isn't all that common. Where this flu will take us is yet to be known but as for me, pork will remain on my menu.

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached weekdays by telephone at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by e-mail at jsemler@umd.edu

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