Pigs possibly linked to H1N1 flu cases in B.C.

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      Remember when they called it “swine flu”? The first pandemic flu in 41 years was quickly renamed “H1N1” in its early days after the pig industry, in damage-control mode, proclaimed loudly that people couldn’t get sick from eating pork. And they said that it looked like the flu was spreading worldwide from person to person—not from pigs to people.

      More than two months after the initial outbreak, it’s still not clear how the flu started. The most accepted explanation is that a farm worker at a massive swine operation in Mexico got the virus from a pig and carried it into the wider population, where it spread without any more involvement from pigs.

      But a closer look at the data on H1N1 cases in B.C. and the rest of Canada suggests the pandemic has a much closer relationship with pig farming than suspected. That relationship is especially striking in the most serious cases of the flu that have caused hospitalization and death.

      The Fraser Health Authority, the district with the largest number of pigs in the province—and one of the most intensively farmed areas in Canada—has a 39-percent-higher rate of confirmed H1N1 cases per capita (9.7 per 100,000 people) than the provincial average (7.0 per 100,000), according to data from the B.C. Centre for Disease Control as of July 6. B.C.’s first confirmed death from H1N1 flu occurred on July 13 in the region.

      The rate is even higher in the Northern Health Authority, which has the highest ratio of pigs to people in the province. The northern region has a 48-percent-higher per capita H1N1 rate (10.3 per 100,000) than the B.C. average.

      The data shows a near-perfect 93-percent correlation between the number of pigs in a health region and the number of confirmed H1N1 cases there. (Correlation measures the strength of the relationship between two groups of data. A correlation of 70 percent or higher is generally considered to be strong.)

      Density of pigs also seems to have a relationship with H1N1 rates—especially when it comes to the most recent flu cases. There is a 95-percent correlation between new cases of H1N1 confirmed during the week of June 29 and the number of pigs per farm in a particular region.

      The same high correlations exist Canada-wide, according to Statistics Canada figures on pig farms and an analysis of data on confirmed H1N1 cases from the Public Health Agency of Canada as of July 8. The data shows that the flu has been more severe in areas with intensive, large-scale hog production.

      The total number of confirmed H1N1 cases in each province has a 99-percent correlation with the number of pig farms in that province.

      In Quebec, the province with the highest number of pigs—4.3 million—residents were twice as likely to be hospitalized when they acquired H1N1 as the Canadian average. Quebec’s death rate from H1N1 per capita has been 60 percent higher than the national average.

      The flu outbreak has been even more severe in Manitoba, which has 2.4 pigs per person, more than any other province. There, the number of H1N1 hospitalizations per capita is triple the national average. The rate of H1N1 deaths per capita in Manitoba has been more than 3.7 times higher than the Canadian average.

      The high correlations surprised even long-time critics of intensive, large-scale farming. “Wow, that’s astounding,” said Peter Fricker, projects and communications director for the Vancouver Humane Society.

      “If there is a possible link between pig farms and susceptibility to disease, public-health authorities should definitely be investigating. If the correlations are correct, the whole issue of factory farming has to be looked at,” he said in a phone interview.

      “Wow, really. I don’t think anybody’s looked at this before,” said Bob Martin, who headed the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, which released a major study last year that said workers in large farms and their neighbours have high rates of asthma and other respiratory illnesses due to manure runoff and emissions like ammonia and fine-particle pollution.

      Martin, speaking from Washington, D.C., said some people living near pig farms could be more susceptible to H1N1 and to more severe reactions because of such respiratory ailments.

      As of mid-June, 40 percent of the people who had died of H1N1 in the U.S. had had an additional medical condition like asthma, diabetes, a compromised immune system, or heart disease, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

      Dr. David Patrick, director of epidemiology at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, said the data could mean people living in hog-producing regions have a higher predisposition to catching H1N1. But he cautioned that there could be other, unknown explanations for the high correlations, too.

      “The fact that particulates can predispose people to asthma is clear. If particulates are an issue, we have to gradually improve our environment,” he said.

      “If we have issues of predisposition [to catching H1N1], that’s a question for sober inquiry by people in environmental health.”

      Until now, he said, public-health officials have believed H1N1 spreads randomly between people or may cluster in areas with dense human populations.

      “Probably the most important message is if people with flu symptoms have asthma or chronic lung disease or anything that affects their immune system, see a doctor right away because antivirals can help avoid hospitalization,” he said.

      The B.C. Pork Producers Association didn’t return a call for comment.

      In the province’s agricultural heartland, the Fraser Valley, H1N1 seems to be going strong instead of dying off after the end of the usual flu season, as initially predicted. So far, the vast majority of incidents have been mild, but a flurry of 22 new H1N1 cases there was confirmed during the week of June 29. That number was the highest in any region of the province and almost twice as many per capita as the provincial average.

      The high numbers coincide with a trend of relatively high incidence of recent H1N1 cases in some of the biggest hog-producing provinces. During the week after July 3, Manitoba saw the highest rate of new confirmed H1N1 cases per capita in Canada (8.4 per 100,000)—5.6 times more than the Canadian average (1.5 per 100,000).

      The location of new flu cases also seems to have a close relationship with especially high concentrations of pig farming. There is an 80-percent correlation between the number of new cases in the seven days after July 3 and a province’s ratio of pigs to people. In other words, the more pigs there are per person, the higher the rate of the flu.

      And no region of Canada has a higher density of farm animals by weight than the Fraser Valley, according to Hans Schreier, a soil scientist and professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia who has studied agricultural pollution in the Valley.

      “We’re generating so much manure in these operations, it winds up in the soil and water,” he said in a phone interview.

      Thanks in large part to massive amounts of farm waste pouring into the Fraser River watershed, the Georgia Basin is “perhaps the most threatened area in the country” for coastal eutrophication—a process that stimulates algae blooms and chokes marine life—according to a study Schreier coauthored in 2006 in the journal Biogeochemistry. The study said farm-waste discharge is poorly regulated across Canada.

      An Agriculture Canada report in 2002 found factory pig farms were causing health and pollution risks to farm workers and the local community. “In B.C.’s Fraser Valley, this chemical soup [from farm emissions] is so thick it causes a visible haze and can make up 70 per cent of the airborne particles in summer,” said the report, which was quoted in a 2002 Ottawa Citizen story and was obtained under an access-to-information request.

      And of all the farm animals in the region, pigs are by far the single biggest source of smog-causing fine-particle pollution, contributing 64 percent of the total fine-particulate matter from all farm-animal sources in the Fraser Valley Regional District, according to a 2004 study done for the district and Environment Canada.

      That study noted that while air-quality improvement in the region had focused on reducing emissions from vehicles and industry, “emissions from agricultural operations have been relatively untouched.”

      Meanwhile, levels of nitrogen—another big emission from farms—in ground water in the Central Fraser have been above the allowable limit for drinking water since 1981, according to a 1997 UBC study published in the journal Environmental Management.

      George Peary, the mayor of Abbotsford, shares his community with the highest number of pigs of any agricultural district in the province—75,570, according to the 2006 census. He acknowledged that manure from pig farms has seeped into ground water in some areas and made some well water undrinkable, but he defended farming practices. “I wouldn’t tie it [H1N1] to agricultural operations,” he said in a phone interview.

      “If there were an issue, the public-health people would keep me informed.”¦There would be all sorts of bells and whistles going off.”

      A top health official also dismissed the higher H1N1 rates in his region and said they’re not worthy of further investigation or action. “It just doesn’t matter. It spreads from person to person.”¦We’re not looking at it from that perspective,” said Dr. Roland Guasparini, chief medical health officer with the Fraser Health Authority.

      In recent years, the B.C. government has encouraged hog producers to spread far north to the fertile Peace River region, where there’s more available farmland. The policy has helped turn Peace River into the fastest-growing hog-producing region in the entire country, with a threefold expansion in pig numbers between 2001 and 2006. The region is now home to 24,000 pigs, more than double the human population of Dawson Creek, the region’s administrative centre.

      And it just so happens that the Northern Health Authority, which includes the Peace River area, has the highest ratio of pigs to people in the province—and the highest rate of confirmed H1N1 flu cases per capita.

      Just across the nearby Alberta border, Denis Sauvageau has all kinds of experience with pig farms moving in next door. He is a fourth-generation farmer in a tiny community called Falher.

      On April 28, Canada’s first death related to H1N1 occurred at the High Prairie Health Complex, a 50-minute drive east from Sauvageau’s house. The woman had had asthma-related difficulties, though there’s no evidence they were related to farming emissions.

      Sauvageau still recalls vividly how hog producers first came to town in the late 1990s with a slick promotion campaign promising a miracle of rural revitalization. “They would create jobs, keep schools open, keep our children here,” he said.

      Today, the smell from a complex of large pig farms five kilometres away is often so strong, Sauvageau can’t stay outside. “The stench is gut-wrenching. It makes you want to puke. You’re done for the night.”

      Sauvageau and his neighbours started a protest group, the Peace River Environmental Society, six years ago to demand improvements in farm waste management practices. They held demonstrations. The group estimated that the 50,000 swine in nearby farms produce 20 million gallons of manure per year.

      Especially worrisome, he said, are the health problems in nearby areas—high rates of asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

      The group finally convinced a reluctant province to study air quality in the area. “Odours do extend into surrounding areas at levels that may disrupt quality of life,” a draft version of the province’s report said in 2007. “The subgroup agreed by consensus that odour from CFOs [confined feeding operations] can have health effects.”

      (The report was never published because the committee writing it, dominated by government and industry officials, couldn’t reach agreement on the document; Sauvageau’s group posted the draft on its Web site.)

      The report cited other studies that had found ammonia from farms can reach levels in the surrounding area that can cause eye and throat irritation, respiratory problems, haze, and fine-particle pollution. Farm emissions of hydrogen sulphide, an eye and respiratory-tract irritant and neurotoxin at high doses, can “cause significant quality-of-human-life concern at the local scale”, according to a 2003 U.S. National Research Council study cited in the report.

      The Alberta report also cited international research that found pig-farm workers have rates of chronic bronchitis that are 2.5 to 5 times higher than those in the wider population and 50- to 100-percent higher than those in dairy and poultry workers.

      The possible connection between intensive hog operations and H1N1 means governments should tighten rules on farm waste, according to the humane society’s Peter Fricker. “They’re like small cities, except with no sewer system. You could understand why there would be a risk to human health.”

      The Pew Commission’s Bob Martin agreed: “We have reached the point that we have to decentralize this production. It’s really a critical kind of issue.”

      With 22 new flu cases confirmed just on July 13 and 14—two-thirds in the Fraser—maybe we’ll be calling it “swine flu” again soon.

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      Pat Gardiner

      Jul 16, 2009 at 9:16am

      You are right. Using entirely different measures, I long ago came to the same conclusion.

      The Alberta carpenter has now been cleared of giving the pigs swine flu and a new variety of swine flu has been found in pig workers in Saskatchewan. the pigs have had flu, but the link os not firmly established.

      Here is my theory:



      Mutated Circovirus in pigs, the consequences treated with heavy use of antibiotics, is followed by
      MRSA in pigs and then MRSA and C.Diff epidemics in humans.

      Poor health in the pig herds makes them vulnerable to Swine Flu (H1N1).
      Humans may be infected and Swine Flu may mutate further in infected herds.


      A circovirus mutation in Britain in 1999 was covered up. The resulting epidemics spread first around the UK, then to Canada and from there, most recently, to the United States.

      (Thesis formulated over nine years, first published 2007. First published here (on my site) Feb 2009. Amplified to include H1N1 May2009)

      Pat Gardiner
      Release the results of testing British pigs for MRSA and C.Diff now!
      www.go-self-sufficient.com and http://animal-epidemics.blogspot.com/


      Jul 16, 2009 at 3:07pm

      Intensive pig farming is inevitable when we consume meat at the current level. The pollutants coming from these farms are detrimental to our planet and ourselves. If we all do out part by significantly reducing or cutting out our consumption of meat, intensive farms will have to disappear. Switching to organic is not the way to stop pollution, because it does not reduce the number of animals being raised.


      Jul 16, 2009 at 3:26pm

      This is a good article. Until we start to take responsibility for the extreme environmental damage that farms do, things are just going to get worse.


      Jul 16, 2009 at 5:54pm

      i raise organic pigs and they are very healthy. The problem is when you put to much of anything in one place against nature, you are going to have problems. Much farming nowadays is controlled by big business.

      Go see <a href="http://www.straight.com/article-238634/director-food-incbattled-orwellia... Inc</a>, that will explain everything and get ready for high prices soon. No more cheap oil, no more cheap food.

      Time to relocalize. . . everything


      Jul 16, 2009 at 7:43pm

      The problem with the whole "organic meat" notion is that there is no way in hell that there is enough land to "grow" animals "organically" for the amount of meat people currently consume. The only way that we can rid factory farms is to actually eat less meat. The only reason they're around is to keep up with the demand. Look at Cargil meat packers in High River, AB as an example. The kill floor goes 24 hours a day as long as there isn't a break down, and that's just one slaughter house...they go through thousands of animals in a day.


      Jul 17, 2009 at 9:22am

      We have a family farm with 850 pigs, sounds like a lot to most people, but the income from 850 pigs is not enough for a family to live on. We have a healthy herd, the animals are vaccinated to prevent some diseases just like we do with our pets and kids. We do keep them in a barn to protect them from diseases(to keep rodents and birds away from their feed because they can pass on some diseases). I'm proud of the work I'm doing, I know that my animals are raised with the least stress as possible, I love seeing the young pigs play with each other and see the older ones nicely sleeping together and only open up one eye when I enter the barn and keep on resting. A bad day is when I find a pig with an injury and I have to put it down, it is in the animals best interest but it doesn't make it easier. When they are around 250 lbs they go to slaughter, I do raise them to make some money.
      I feel attacked by the outside world about my way of living, they call farms like mine a factory farm, what makes it a factory? The animals are kept in a barn and we started doing that for a reason; to protect the animals from the elements, to keep a better eye on their health and to try to make a living.
      The manure which some people see as waste is being used to fertilize our field so we can grow a crop without having to buy fertilizer.
      The particles in the barn itself, we call it dust, is less a problem than the dust that I breath in when a truck drives a gravel road.
      When I read all the comments about the influenza outbreak and people just trying to blame this on the hog industry I shake my head, we would have more influenza outbreaks if we were still having backyard pigs, it is good for everybody's health, pigs and humans, that we are living separated.

      Tim from Richelieu

      Jul 17, 2009 at 11:28am

      This story about the unprofitability of raising pigs organically is a myth. Have any of you looked at the price of organic pork chops compared to CAFO raised ones? In the province of Quebec we regularly see boneless industrial chops on special for $1.50 a pound while my organic ones from our co-op group are over $4.
      And using the manure as fertilizer is fine if it is composted with the straw used in the buildings but is defininitely not good if it is liquid pig waste which has been stewing in a lagoon or reservoir and then spread over the fields just before a heavy rainful so it gets washed into the wells and waterways from which we get our drinking water like they do here!.

      Alex Barnaby

      Jul 18, 2009 at 8:16am

      By law, all intensive pig farms must have a waste management program in place including collection and disposal of manure that meets local bylaws. The comment by the writer that says pig farms are like small cities without sewer system is false and the writer should investigate with the local authorities responsible for approving the construction or expansion of pigs farms to cooborate.

      Marisa Herrera

      Jul 18, 2009 at 10:52pm

      I call this connecting the dots. Obviously, government, industry and those who profit from and support factory farming will dismiss/ignore the facts.
      It's to their benefit to propagate the idea that factory farming is good for the non-human animals, good for people, good for jobs, good for farming, etc.

      Why does factory farming exist? Because people want to consume non-human animal flesh and their products, and people profit from this animal exploitation.

      In a "civilized" society people should have an understanding that all living creatures deserve to be free from oppression, intolerance, exploitation and cruelty. It's time we evolve to a civilized and compassionate way of thought and action and protect nature and all her creatures.

      Regretably, we live in a world where non-human animals are regarded as objects for our profit, exploitation and entertainment. The supremist and patriarchial doctrines still rule and are destroying the living systems that sustain ALL life and the amazing creatures who share Earth with us.

      We abuse, oppress, torture, massacre, and obliterate these innocent creatures who have as much right to live a life of freedom as we do.


      Jul 19, 2009 at 10:03am

      The article provides no evidence of a link; the fact that B.C. has pig farms and H1N1 in numbers is not evidence; it is coincidental. Alberta has swine farms in numbers; shouldn't their numbers of H1N1 cases be up there too using your hypothesis? Crappy science. Great paranoia.