Egypt Pig Cull Suggests Ethical Risks of DNA-based Public Policy

The Egyptian government has ordered a 100% blanket cull of its entire pig stock in response to the outbreak of “swine flu” in Mexico and the US. The problem is, the new strain of the virus, technically influenza A H1N1, has not been found in pigs. The H1N1 strain is a flu virus that affects the human population and is spread by person to person contact. It contains genetic material showing it is a hybrid flu containing genetic segments linking it to avian-borne, swine-borne and human-borne flu viruses.

It is believed the initial infection may have some link to a particular pig farm in rural Oaxaca state, in southern Mexico. But as yet, this has not been confirmed, nor has it been confirmed that any livestock were responsible for transmission of the virus to the first affected individual. Egypt’s culling of pigs has been declared unnecessary by the World Health Organization, and the nature of Egypt’s apparent severe overreaction to the theoretical threat of a flu pandemic is made more clear by the fact that no one in Egypt has contracted the H1N1 flu infection.

What we are faced with, then, is the problem of genetic discrimination. In this case, pigs are being killed as a precaution, due to the genetic markers linking members of their species to a new strain of flu, on the other side of the world. But there is an immediate and direct human impact, for the pig-farmers whose livelihood is being destroyed by the blanket cull. There is even a clear cultural and ethnic component to the impact of the cull, as many of the farmers are Coptic Christians, a minority in Egypt, where the majority muslim population consumes far less pork of any kind.

This means we have a clear case where an exaggerated reaction, based on inaccurate assumptions about genetic information, is effectively producing a new form of ethnic discrimination, with a measurable economic impact. It is not hard to see how this sort of situation could exacerbate, or even generate, prejudice and cultural isolation of minorities in the human population, using genetic information and false assumptions about public health as the basis on which to carry out the discriminatory policy.

It is unimportant, ethically speaking, whether such a regime of genetically-based discrimination would be the deliberate intent of such actions or the inadvertent byproduct of aggressive measures taken with no ethical or civil liberties protections. Using genetic information to isolate or discriminate against any part of the human population, based on their “genetic markers” is an ethical violation with no sound justification; we must, therefore, take the Egyptian H1N1 pig cull as a crucial warning…

Individual genetic information needs to be protected and individual liberties need to be sanctified in law above the yearnings of a public-policy apparatus that seeks to exploit such information, make blanket judgments, or determine who is entitled to what treatment and in the interests of whom. We must become conscious of how the abuse of such information is related to the buying and selling of human beings.

It cannot be permitted for economic or political interests to take precedence over the sanctity of the individual’s right to make choices about his or her health and related biological information. Where there is a public interest to be considered, such information can be used to make sound judgments about tactical specifics, such as the pattern by which an infection spreads or the reaction of a given population, on average, to a given treatment, but transforming genetic clues into blanket policies of discrimination must not be permitted by democratic societies.

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