Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack held a press briefing today (Sept. 10) with the intended purpose of explaining the USDA’s preparedness to handle the potential onset H1N1 influenza this fall.
As the 30-minute media briefing drew on, the secretary’s exasperation with the general media’s persistent misrepresentation of the 2009 Pandemic H1N1 influenza virus as “swine flu” became apparent.
“As you know, since last spring and the onset of the H1N1 outbreak in humans, USDA has consistently asked those in the media who convey information to consumers and to citizens to be careful about what they call this virus. We would ask, respectfully, that the media give serious consideration to transitioning from what they have been doing – which is to call this (virus) the swine flu, incorrectly, to considering using H1N1 as the appropriate name for this virus.”
Vilsack acknowledged that the novel H1N1 virus includes part human, part avian and part swine strains. “It’s the combination that made it unique and different,” he continued. “Unfortunately, the media gravitated to the swine aspect of it – and then labeled it so. Then, in their efforts to simplify the complexity of the virus by using the ‘swine flu’ reference, they (media) created a real problem in terms of pork producers and pork markets” by fostering “confusion and uncertainty in the markets at a time when the market was unstable to begin with.
“It is not swine flu,” he admonished. “It’s just not correct to call it that. It‘s a novel virus and the most appropriate and correct way to refer to it is 2009 Pandemic H1N1 Influenza virus This may seem difficult or silly to some people – but it’s not if you’re out there trying to make a living and taking care of your family.”
“By continuing to mislabel this pandemic H1N1 Influenza virus, we’re affecting populations around the world. The media is causing, in my view, undue and undeserved harm to America’s agricultural industry, especially to the pork producers in the United States,” Vilsack said.
USDA, through pork purchases and other efforts, attempted to prop up pork markets. “But every time we’d begin to make a little headway, out comes a major media market continuing to emphasize that it’s ‘swine flu.”
Although President Obama, key USDA, Department of Health & Human Services or Department of Homeland Security officials have consistently reinforced the safety of eating properly handled and prepared pork, “You cannot overestimate the impact that repetitive mischaracterizations and mislabeling have on the difficulty it creates for us to get this market back to where it needs to be,” he emphasized.
“I want folks who are in the business of conveying information to understand that behind that message there is a family sitting at a breakfast table wondering how in the hell they are going to pay the bills when they continually have to sell pork for less than what it costs to produce as they continue to get hammered for something that they had absolutely nothing to do with.
“Pork producers are suffering through a very, very depressed market; they are seeing serious economic losses. Every time the flu is mislabeled and misrepresented, it makes it that much more difficult to climb out of this difficult economic time,” he stressed.
“And behind every pork producer there is an implement dealer, there’s a hardware store owner, there’s a grocery store owner, there are small businesses that are benefited and supported by farmers in rural communities, and they suffer as well,” he reminded.
Secretary Vilsack reinforced that there have been no reports that 2009 H1N1 influenza is circulating anywhere in the U.S. swine herd. “Even if it were, people cannot get infected with the 2009 Pandemic H1N1 influenza virus from eating pork or pork products,” he stressed.
There is a possibility that the novel strain could show up in a swine herd this fall – as it has in a couple of Canadian herds – so the USDA is preparing the possibility.
“USDA has implemented a swine influenza virus surveillance program in cooperation with all of our stakeholders,” he continued. “Monitoring and studying this virus in swine will help us learn more about it; it will help us develop better tools to diagnose it; and, hopefully, over time, it will help us develop new and improved vaccines to protect the U.S. swine herd.”
To expedite the development of a vaccine to protect against the 2009 Pandemic H1N1 Influenza viral strain, USDA has provided a master seed virus to five veterinary biologics manufacturers in hopes that it will allow those manufacturers to more rapidly produce and improve a vaccine.
“Normally, the private sector would take the ball on this, but that takes a lot of time and money,” he explained. “We estimated that the two seed viruses that we were able to produce at USDA saved between four and seven months of time vs. simply letting private industry take over.
“We think it will save tens of thousands – if not over hundreds of thousands of dollars of resources,” Vilsack continued. “Our hope is that they will take the seed virus and refine it, finalize it to the point that they can produce a vaccine.”
In addition, studies are being conducted to determine the possible origin of the 2009 Pandemic H1N1 influenza virus, the impact it could have on a naïve swine herd or a herd that has been exposed to an endemic swine influenza strain more typically seen in swine herds.
In closing, the secretary explained: “We are increasing our surveillance, increasing our monitoring, developing a seed virus and making it available to manufacturers, and working on creating a vaccine to protect swine herds. If we do detect this (2009 Pandemic H1N1 influenza) virus in swine, we will work with our state partners, the producer and veterinary communities to prevent the spread of the virus.”
“Should there be any of H1N1 virus detected in swine herds in America, which up to this point it has not been, we will respond effectively and quickly to avoid the spread of the virus. When it comes to flu, swine are much like people – the vast majority recovers without any lingering health effects.
“Our expectation is that the majority of swine would recover fully from it, and we will assure consumers that no swine, no animals will go to slaughter unless they are indeed fully recovered,” he assured.