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Swine Flu and Politics in Egypt
Swine Flu and Politics in Egypt
Is Egypt’s decision to slaughter all its pigs a wise decision to combat the swine flu virus? Does it have any effect on stopping a viral infection on the verge of becoming a pandemic but which has so far not reached Egyptian grounds? Asking these question in light of global health recommendations as well as other countries’ efforts to stop the spread of the virus might help us put Egypt’s reaction in perspective.
Sunday, May 10,2009 11:17
by Youssef Faltas* Islamonline

Is Egypt"s decision to slaughter all its pigs a wise decision to combat the swine flu virus? Does it have any effect on stopping a viral infection on the verge of becoming a pandemic but which has so far not reached Egyptian grounds? Asking these question in light of global health recommendations as well as other countries" efforts to stop the spread of the virus might help us put Egypt"s reaction in perspective.


Since the recent outbreak of the swine flu (H1N1) virus, each of the world"s countries have implemented different policies in trying to combat the further spreading of the epidemic. On April 29, the World Health Organization (WHO) classifies the virus under a level 5 pandemic alert meaning that "the virus has caused sustained community level outbreaks in at least two countries in one WHO region. At phase 5 a pandemic is considered imminent." The term "sustained community transmission" means that the virus has passed from one person to a second person and then to a third.


Recommendations Ignored


The WHO, a United Nations coordinating authority on international public health, has published on its website some guidance for dealing with the virus. On comparing these advised strategies and the wildly divergent policies various countries have adopted since the virus"s outbreak, one can"t help but follow world news in complete disbelief.


These are dangerous times, be advised, especially if you are traveling to Sudan. If you are Mexican, you simply won"t get in. If you are one unlucky transit airline passenger coming an infected country, you might be kept in a room at the airport for 4-7 days. If, on the other hand, you are a Mexican living in China, you might have been quarantined along with some other 69 of your countrymen even though they didn"t show any fly symptoms.


Many other countries have decided to stop importing pork and its products from some US states, Mexico, and Canada and have even cautioned their citizens of traveling to Mexico in particular. In another singular plan of action, Egypt has decided to put to death all of its estimated 300,000 pigs.


The WHO points out that, at this point in time, there hasn"t been any confirmation of transmission between pigs and humans. This statement remains in conflict with one sole unconfirmed case of human-to-pig transmission. In Alberta, Canada, a herd of pigs tested positive for swine flu, apparently after being infected by a farm worker recently returned from Mexico. A senior official from Canada"s food safety agency, Brian Evans, commented that both the man and the pigs were recovering. "There is no food safety concern related to this finding," he said, adding that the chance that these pigs could transfer virus to a person is "remote."


How can we then make sense of Egypt"s perplexing action of culling its entire pig population and along with it the pork industry?


Since it is mainly Christians who raise pigs and consume pork in Egypt, some Egyptian Christians don"t find this governmental action in the least bit perplexing. Some of the minority, which makes up an estimated 10 percent of the Egyptian population, see it as a sign of religious bias.


The Wrong Reasons


Talking to a few of the Christians, however, one realizes that this view is not an absolute consensus. Ramez Girgis, a Coptic Christian whose chicken farms were affected by the on-going bird flu, is of the viewpoint that "the government saw a golden opportunity in the swine flu epidemic to do what it wanted to do a long time ago, which is get rid of the pig-farming in the slums." He told IslamOnline.net (IOL) that what worries him the most, though, is the fate of the huge daily amount of organic waste that the slum pigs used to consume everyday.


Another Coptic Christian, Eshak Fikri, felt that the swine flu epidemic was overblown by the Egyptian government. The pig culling decision, he told IOL, doesn"t affect him much because he simply doesn"t eat pork since the dirty environment pigs are raised in make them carry all kinds of disease.


The official position of the Coptic church is that since this epidemic will have an effect on all Egyptians, then pig culling is what has to be done. The Coptic church, thus, takes the safest position preferring not to question the motive or effectiveness of the government"s action.


Another point of view is that the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Products was trying by implementing this radical decision to hit two birds with one stone. First, this is an opportunity to redeem its slow reaction to the bird flu viral outbreak in 2006. Despite countrywide mass bird culls, the bird flu has caused 26 deaths in Egypt so far.


Second, this is a golden chance to regulate the chaos in the Egyptian pig farming industry, and to start a new industry which conforms to more healthy standards. Currently, both the chaos and unhealthiness stem from the fact that a large portion of pig farming in Egypt is carried out in slum areas by garbage collectors who use organic waste as food for their pigs. "We have been calling for the removal of pigpens from populated areas since 2006," said Hamdi El-Sayed head of the People Assembly"s Health Committee.


Even though the government has allowed the farmers to sell the slaughtered animals as pork, it comes as no surprise that workers in the pig-farming industry strongly oppose the governmental plan. Their reasons for this are quite simple. Not only will the massive market supply of pork decrease its price, but also these workers will have to find a new way to make a living if they agree to slaughter all their pigs at once.


Let"s also not forget the hygienic pig farms which are already operating outside of Cairo, the culling of which would be extremely unfair to their owners. The reaction of Girgis Youssef Boulis, the head of pork producer Ramsis Meats, which runs state of the art farms in the countryside, was "I"ve invested millions of pounds in equipment, including buildings, fridges, etc. Who will compensate me for these millions in investments?"


The Egyptian government seems to be in need of either paying a more satisfying compensation to the pig farmers for their pigs and livelihood, or simply declaring its goal behind the culling and working hard to achieve it by cooperating with pig farmers not by forcing them into it. If the real motive is creating more hygienic pig farms, then culling the pigs in the name of a swine flu precaution is simply misinformation which will cost the farmers, their industry, and the government a lot of money.


* Youssef Faltas is an Egyptian freelance writer. He can be reached by sending an  [email protected]e-mail to


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