Human death toll rises despite slaughter of pigs

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE SLAUGHTER of more than a million pigs continued yesterday, as five more people died of swine-borne viruses that have claimed 76 lives and ruined farmers in Malaysia.

Like nearly all the previous victims, the latest casualties were pig farmers from the central state of Negeri Sembilan, where two separate viruses have created panic in a country still recovering from the effects of the Asian economic crisis. Earlier this week, Malaysian cabinet ministers suggested that "foreign elements" had engineered the epidemics in an attempt to sabotage Malaysia's economy.

The government has dispatched soldiers and police in plastic body suits to exterminate 1.3 million pigs to prevent the viruses spreading. But in the past 12 days, shooting has killed fewer than 200,000, prompting the government to consider electrocution or gassing to speed the process.

The deaths are believed to have been caused by Japanese encephalitis, and a new strain of the Hendra virus. Encephalitis is harboured by pigs, and passed on to humans via the Culex mosquito. But blood samples analysed in the US have shown infection by the Hendra virus, which is said to be transmitted through direct contact with the blood, urine or faeces of infected swine.

Victims of both viruses suffer aches and high fever, leading, when untreated, to coma, brain inflammation and death.

The outbreak has devastated the country's $400m (pounds 240m) pork industry, which employs 300,000 people.

The situation is complicated by the ambiguous position that pigs occupy in Malaysia. The industry is dominated by ethnic Chinese, who eat a lot of pork. But to Muslim Malays, the majority, the pig is an unclean animal. Scenes featuring pigs are sometimes censored from films and television.

Some Muslims have refused to have injections against encephalitis, believing that the vaccine contains pig-derived products. Muslim scholars have tried to reassure them that the vaccinations are acceptable.