Thursday, May 14, 2009

MASK: Swine Flu Expressed Through Face Masks

MASK: Swine Flu Expressed Through Face Masks

FROM THE FIRST fevered days of breathless newscasts warning of a fast-moving contagion - images of masked soldiers brandishing automatic rifles at airports and questions of isolationism whizzing by - to the silence that now pervades, the mass media obsession with Swine flu has run its course.

This might be an indicator that the public also has stopped noticing, especially if one analyzes Twitter trends, which shows the flu-related chatter at a lull. Perhaps that’s the trade off from the intensity - and absurdity - of the coverage in late April.

Mask I : "If I'm Still Alive" : My intentions with the masks are to communicate the issues surrounding the swine flu outbreak of 2009, and express it in a way representative of the outbreak. It struck me at the time that face masks were a powerful symbol of this and many other outbreaks, embodying a silent, but potent, fear of the unknown. It also occurred to me that the face mask can double as a fairly interesting canvas for whatever the artist wishes to communicate. My artistic skills were limited, but I felt the act of expression was more important than the competency of the artwork. So this was one of my first masks, it features lyrics by one of my favorite artists, the Canadian band Metric. The song is titled "Help, I'm Alive," and it reflects the feelings of isolation that the writer, Emily Haines, felt when she uprooted her life to find an artistic sanctuary in Buenos Aires. In the same way, the mask separates us so that it can save us. But that always complicates matters.

The flu may be a fad, unless you happen to live in Illinois, which the Center for Disease Control now says is the most infected state. As of 12 p.m. CST April 14, the CDC said that Illinois had 620 reported cases of swine flu. That’s more than New York’s 224, or Texas’ 439 or even California’s 473. The closest competitor to the Land of Lincoln is one of its neighbors, Wisconsin, with its 510 reported cases.

Most of Illinois’ cases were reported in Chicago and surrounding areas (274 in Chicago, 179 in suburban Cook county). Meanwhile, here in Sangamon county, one person tested positive so far. That woman, according to the county’s department of public health, and reported by the Springfield State-Journal Register, “never needed to be hospitalized and has returned to work.”

In Springfield, before the confirmed case, there had been a run on face masks at local stores. When I asked a Wal-Mart employee where a person could find a facemask, I was told “anywhere where they are the most expensive.”

There’s a stark contrast, a sort of disconnect, between the potency of the flu and the media bonanza that hyped it up. Nancy Cox, flu chief for the CDC, told Associated Press reporters on May 1 that the virus lacked the traits of more dangerous strains, such as the recent avian flu. A researcher from Mount Sinai Medical School also told reporters that “there is no real reason to believe this is a more serious strain” than a garden-variety seasonal flu.

Almost entirely absent from the public discussion is the link between the virus and factory farming, yet the scientific community has known this for some time. The alarm was first sounded by scientists in March 2003, in a report from science writer Bernice Wuethrich in the magazine Science.

Biologists had been trying to make sense of a wave of new swine flu viruses that had been gaining momentum since 1998 in North American factory farms. “It seems that after years of stability, the North American swine flu virus has jumped onto an evolutionary fast track, churning out variants every year,” Wuethrich reported.

Mask II : "Dead Piggies Never Squeal" : The inspiration for this mask came from the frustration I felt from mainstream media, notably 24-hour cable news networks, health officials and representatives of the pork industry. Firstly, my critique of the 24-hour news networks has several points: that they hyped the novelty of the virus rather than explain its potency, and also that they were complicit in renaming the virus to H1N1 despite the link to swine. For health officials, it was that they also did not brief the public on the possibility that the virus was no more potent than the seasonal flu, and also capitulating to the pork producers' will, at the expense of public awareness. And lastly, it's a statement to the pork producers for misleading the public about the potential for viruses to come out of breeding plants. Dead piggies never squeal, but they're not so good at stopping viruses.

What was the source of these changes, according to experts? Pigs, as nature would have it, are ideal vessels for strains of swine, avian and human influenza viruses to swap genetic information and breed more virulent strains. There are environmental factors that can contribute to a killer flu as well.

“In the past decade, big swine producers have gotten bigger, and many small producers have gone out of business,” Wuethrich noted, saying that from 1993 to 2003 the number of large North American farms grew from less than 1/5 of all farms to more than 1/2. Accompanied by that increase in the number of hogs is the ability for those hogs to serve as Petri dishes for the mixing and proliferation of ever more dangerous strains of flu.

Other factory farming habits only increase the likelihood of a potent flu being bred, most notably the widespread use of vaccines. Experts say while this practice decreases the odds of an interspecies transmission, it also may favor new viral types coming into being.

The looming threat of the swine flu, however, was eclipsed by the avian flu “global health emergency somewhat eclipsed the ability of the article to have a significant impact,” Bernice Wuethrich said in an interview with The Real News Network.

Indeed, sandwiched between the pages of the swine flu story was another one of her stories, titled “An Avian Flu Jumps to People.” There, she reported that cases of avian flu infecting humans in Hong Kong “sounded an even more urgent alarm.”

Swine flu always is an issue for the factory farm and for biologists. But what really gets the attention of the science and health communities is when a swine flu makes a critical jump in evolution and infects a person. The record so far suggests that for this swine flu, that critical moment came in early April, in La Gloria, in the state of Veracruz, Mexico.

Residents there urged that the government investigate a nearby pig farm operated by Granjas Carroll, a subsidiary of Smithfield (NYSE:SFD). At the time of the citizen’s press conference, a mysterious new respiratory infection had infected a large percentage of the town’s population, according to local news reports . Some of the children also developed bronchial pneumonia.

Mask III : "Enjoy Smithflu" : Smithfield's press releases about the state of affairs at Granjas Carroll have done little to satisfy critics, especially since they have asserted their innocence on information that may not exist. Until CDC or FDA officials investigate GC, and a thorough, independent investigation follows, the record will still show a strong link between Smithfield and the swine flu. This strong link begs the question of culpability. Will a company, proven to be the origin of an illness which kills, maims and cost millions to quell, not take responsibility? Will restitution not be due to families affected? And will governments not regulate the industry to prevent such happenings in the future? The "Enjoy Smithflu" mask begs these questions.

Veratect, a Seattle biosurveillance startup, reported April 6 on the strange illness. Health officials in La Gloria found nearly 60 percent of the population affected by the outbreak. Citizens pointed to
fetid lagoons of swine feces
as the source of the illness, and flies as a possible vector. Health officials concurred.

James Wilson, an operational biosurveillance professional for Veratect and the writer behind the Biosurveillance blog, added the disclaimer that “And to be crystal clear, the way we used this information was to simply flag an event as worthy of closer scrutiny and higher awareness, as there was absolutely no proof of true involvement of this company in the outbreak- a proper epidemiological investigation is required to prove such links.” Veratect’s Twitter feed, @veratect, continues to document the progress of the swine flu.

Pending some kind of conclusive evidence of where this flu came from, bloggers and commentators called the virus “Smithflu.” Meanwhile, on April 30, the World Health Organization stopped calling the flu a swine flu, and now officially refers to it as influenza A(H1N1), to try to alter the negative perception of the pork industry.

Mask IV : "American Pig" : Americans consume five times as much as Mexicans. Ten times as much as a Chinese person. Thirty times as much as a person from India. I find it a pointed critique of American culture to make a mask such as "American Pig." The irony of the name and nature of the swine flu only adds to the power of the critique.

Smithfield’s official stance is that it had nothing to do with the swine flu. “Based on available recent information, Smithfield has no reason to believe that the virus is in any way connected to its operations in Mexico,” it said in an April 26 press release. At the same time, it stated that it is part of investigations and is submitting “samples from its swine herds to The University of Mexico for testing.” That same release also says that Smith Field does vaccinate its animals for swine flu.

In the latest developments on the Smithfield front, the company made a press release May 14 saying that “testing process conducted by the Mexican government have confirmed that no virus, including the human strain of A(H1N1) influenza, is present in the pig herd at Granjas Carroll.”

Mask V : "Hello Kitty Mask" : The face mask seems like such an alien item in the United States. If you were to wear the item in the streets, you would doubtless get many confused looks. Even so, when I learn about other parts of the globe, I am taken aback that for so many people living in industrialized nations (especially China), it is a part of the daily routine. I pondered what kind of massive event would require us in the U.S. to alter our daily habits to include the face mask.

Obviously, like in China, the flu or environmental hazards would be enough to cause these shifts. And yet, despite such shifts, much of what we consider American habits would continue almost unfazed. Children would have to be brought up with the knowledge of these modified habits. This was something that came to mind when I learned about other masks, such as Bill Barminski's 2001 "IBM Blue Mickey" gas mask, or the Walt-Disney approved 1942 Mickey masks. It was with this in mind that I painted "Hello Kitty" on the mask. Note that the "Hello Kitty" also is wearing a mask, as if to be a proper role model for children in an era where the concepts of sterility and quarantine are essential.

The underlying question, which I find most fascinating, is the selection process of habits. Which parts of our daily lives are we willing to change, so that other habits may continue to be practiced?

At the time, there have been no independent or government reports that confirm the assertions, or an acknowledgement or explanation of the illness that struck the population of La Gloria.

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