An inside look at Egypt’s reaction to pigs and H1N1

A freelance science writer from Egypt speaking at a conference for science journalists helped shed some light on that country’s extraordinary decision to slaughter its entire pig population when H1N1 influenza was first announced earlier this year.

Nadia El-Awady, Program Manager with the Arab Science Journalists Association, spoke about the events that led up to the mass slaughter and how the weaknesses in Egyptian media and government contributed to the panic that gripped the country.

Prior to the onset of H1N1 – tagged with the misnomer swine flu that has unfortunately stuck – earlier this year, estimates placed the number of pigs in Egypt between 100,000 and 300,000 animals. It was the only Arab country with a significant pig population, largely due to its minority Christian population (10 percent) and its dependence on tourism.

Most Egyptian pig farmers are Christians and in recent years, tensions between Muslims and Christians have been on the rise. As well, the Egyptian government has been criticized in the past for its slow responses to national crises, especially a bird flu outbreak that was mishandled to the point that the virus is now endemic in Egypt.

According to El-Awady, pigs in Egypt are raised in poor, residential areas in close proximity with humans and not on farms like we are used to. Due to the presence of bird flu, there was a concern about the spread of influenza from birds to pigs and then humans. This led the government to develop a plan in 2006 to relocate the pig population, but it was never executed.

Set against that background, the Egyptian parliament first called for the slaughter of all of the country’s pigs on April 28 and only one day later, a presidential decree launched the cull, which shocked people around the world, especially since a definitive link between pigs and H1N1 had not yet been established – AND, Egypt at that point didn’t have a single case of the disease within its borders.

El-Awady says there are several weaknesses in Egypt’s media and political system that helped fuel the panic that swept through the country.

Causing fear in the community
An expert raised the possibility of pork being substituted for beef in the Egyptian food chain due to global economic challenges. Pork consumption is forbidden in Islam, so this caused widespread fear, even though there was never any proof that this was actually occurring anywhere in the country.

Conspiracy theories
Reports in the Egyptian media were speculating that swine flu was a biological weapon – based on its genetic make up of human, avian and swine flu strains – being developed for military purposes.

Political speak
Egyptian journalists follow the government’s ministers very closely and cover their statements extensively – but without balance.

Religious righteousness
The misnomer swine flu combined with the fact that pork consumption is forbidden in Islam led to a “see what pigs do – we were right to prohibit pork” notion that was widely circulated. This was supported by claims that pigs are the biggest receptacle of all diseases and the general causes of pandemics of all sorts.

Religion, language and sources
El-Awady cited the example of an article written by a health reporter about a study which claimed that eating pork can infect humans with the bad habits of pigs – such as swapping spouses and not showing jealousy over spouses, traits the article claimed are widespread in the West. Upon further investigation, El-Awady discovered that the so-called study was actually written by an Egyptian veterinarian who had gotten his information off discussion sites on the Internet. The language barrier can often pose problems for Arab journalists, as most scientific information is available in English, so they sometimes end up using unreliable sources.

The result of all of this in Egypt, says El-Awady, was panic. In order to avoid this type of response in the future, she has some specific recommendations for her country:

*government needs to find a balance between the need for transparency and providing uninformed information to the public

*scientists must learn to communicate effectively

*media need to learn to not create unnecessary panic

*language is a barrier that needs to be overcome

Nadia El-Awady has also written an article on this subject that is published on the Sci.Dev website, a portal for news, views and information about science, technology and the developing world.

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