The tabloid headlines over swine flu changed last week from “impending Armageddon” to stating “everything is fine after all”.
In reality neither extreme is accurate. But what has come to light is the extent to which corporate pursuit of profits is shaping reporting of the emerging flu pandemic.
Even the name “swine flu” came under corporate pressure last week.
US agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack said the outbreak should not be called “swine flu” because the name “suggests a problem with pork products”.
According to ABC news, this statement came after “representatives of certain agricultural industries made their displeasure known to the Obama administration”.
The corporate lobbying was so successful that the World Health Organisation has now stopped calling the virus swine flu, using “N1HI” instead.
Corporate interests have also shaped the global response to the threat. Shares in drug companies rose dramatically at the start of the outbreak.
The pharmaceutical giants concentrate on producing anti-virals such as Tamiflu that stem the symptoms of the disease but only work with early treatment.
There is less profit in producing the more effective vaccines because of the way the flu virus evolves and changes – meaning a new vaccine is needed for each different strain of flu.
Even where there is vaccine research, it is skewed by the priorities of the system.
For instance, as part of George Bush’s “war on terror”, research money was diverted into vaccines for terrorist threats instead of flu vaccines.
As with all major diseases, the impact and spread of swine flu is shaped by poverty.
The first known victim of the swine flu was five year old Edgar Hernandez, who lives in the town of La Gloria in Mexico.
La Gloria is part of the municipality of Perote – where an outbreak of flu and chest infections has affected 1,600 people out of a population of 3,000 since February.
The high death rate from flu in Mexico is down to poverty – people living in cramped, overcrowded conditions with poor nutrition and little access to healthcare.
At the heart of Perote is Granjas Carroll – one of the country’s largest pig farms.
Some 50 percent of the operation is owned by the US-based corporation Smithfield Foods. It produces close to a million pigs a year.
Residents held a demonstration last month against the pollution from the factory, which meant the town was cordoned off by the authorities.
People who get severe flu which remains untreated can develop pneumonia.
There have been calls to exhume the bodies of the children from the area who died of pneumonia so that they could be tested for swine flu.
The genetic background of the current flu is a strain that emerged in 1998 in factory farms in North Carolina in the US.
In the 1990s pig production in North Carolina rose from two million to ten million, even as the number of farms dropped.
Pigs are packed so tightly that they cannot turn, and have to stand in their own waste.
They are pumped full of antibiotics, including ones used to treat human diseases.
In the name of maximising profit, this has created a health disaster waiting to happen.
The poor have been the hardest hit in all major flu outbreaks.
If the pandemic emerges fully in Britain then the effect of privatisation and bed shortages in the NHS would make the effects of the flu far worse than they need to be.
And for the poor of the Global South a global flu pandemic would be disastrous.