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Swine Flu Controversies May 1, 2009

Posted by Katelyn Mack in Discrimination, Economics, Harvard School of Public Health.
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As swine flu (H1N1) has spread throughout the United States we have increasingly heard conversations about closing the border with Mexico and other extreme measures for controlling the emerging epidemic. While government officials have assured the American public that closing the border is akin to “trying to close the door after the horse has left the barn,” there is still anxiety over where cases will emerge and how serious it will be.

This outbreak has brought out the best and the worst in American politics. On one hand, officials have done an outstanding job reassuring Americans and fighting “fear tactics” propagated by some journalists (ahem…Sunday’s Washington Post front-page article). Local, state, and federal officials seem to be cooperating and collaborating to make sure resources reach those who need them.

On the other hand, web sites and talk radio hosts have revealed xenophobic reactions to this threat (are Michael Savage’s remarks really that surprising?). Calls to unnecessarily close borders seem like attempts to capitalize on a political opportunity to prevent immigration, rather than a true concern for Americans’ health.

At this time we must join together with Mexicans and government officials to prevent the spread of the flu and contain the epidemic. Dr. Julio Frenk, Dean of the Harvard School of Public Health and former Minister of Health in Mexico, has been a great champion of US-Mexico relations in this uncertain time.

Another interesting reaction to the “SWINE flu” has been the decision to slaughter thousands of pigs in Egypt.  The minster of health, Hatem el-Gabaly, backs this approach and suggests that it will prevent the transmission of the virus from swine to humans. Unfortunately, this is likely to do anything to stop swine flu from spreading! 

CNN suggests that the slaughter may be motivated by other public health concerns, and not just the threat of H1N1 flu. What stood out to me was how poor Christians are being singled out because of this policy. In a mostly Muslim nation, Christians tend to raise, feed, and eat pigs. With the new policy, officials are taking away their livestock without considering the socioeconomic effects. The UK’s TimeOnline reported on the recent uprising of the large Coptic Christian minority in Egypt.

As the H1N1 (swine) flu epidemic develops we hope to examine closely some of these social and political factors that emerge.

What Do You Think?

What have you seen or heard about swine flu that has surprised or confused you? Do you think that an infectious disease like swine flu can intersect with social determinants of health?

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