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Pandemic irrationality

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PITY the poor pig. Or, more profoundly, pity the poor pork producer. The emer­gence of a deadly new flu that is threat­ening a world-wide pandemic that could rival the 1918-1919 Spanish flu pandemic that killed 21 million people, including 50,000 Can­adians, has been dubbed the "swine flu."

That is not entirely a misnomer, since the basic swine flu, of which the new virus ap­pears to be a deadly mutation, may have ori­ginated in pigs, just as the avian flu hatched from birds, primarily chickens. As much as we may not like to think it, pigs and people are remarkably similar genetically, sharing more than 90 per cent of genes in common, and both are susceptible to the same flu virus. Led by an international media in full feeding-frenzy -- CBC's Newsworld is almost entirely devoted these days to the much­anticipated but not yet real pandemic -- there is a kind of mild panic abroad that can only grow with the number of cases.

That number is increasing day by day and country by country. Originating in Mexico, it has spread to the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia. The numbers are still small, the deadly cases even smaller, but the threat is real and health officials are preparing for war.

Any battle, every war, however, always has collateral damage and in this war Manitoba's pork producers have become the innocent victims. Scientists agree that one cannot contract swine flu by eating pork. Neverthe­less, there has been a drop in pork prices to the producers of $12 to $13 per pig, or about 10 per cent, since the beginning of this week, and Manitoba hog farmers attribute that to the linking of pigs to swine flu in the public mind. That decline comes amid a more general, almost as irrational depression in pork prices caused by the Country of Origin Labelling bill passed by the U.S. Congress in 2008 that requires meat products to be labelled as to where they came from. American supermar­kets found that too onerous, and stopped buy­ing Canadian pork.

That, however, is a political problem that governments can discuss and possibly resolve. It is not a superstition, as is the swine-flu­inspired boycott of pork -- several countries have this week even banned the import of pig products.

Superstition is more difficult, perhaps impossible to counter. It has been suggested that the current deadly flu be called some­thing other than "swine," but its association with pigs is probably inextricably linked in the public mind by now. The only answer to superstition is, as it always has been, educa­tion, which is equally difficult to implement and not, right, now, high on any government's priority list.�

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

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