CAIRO, (AP) – Egypt began slaughtering the roughly 300,000 pigs in the country Wednesday as a precaution against swine flu even though no cases have been reported here, infuriating farmers who blocked streets and stoned vehicles of Health Ministry workers who came to carry out the government’s order.
The measure was a stark expression of the panic the deadly outbreak is spreading around the world, especially in poor countries with weak public health systems. Egypt responded similarly a few years ago to an outbreak of bird flu, which is endemic to the country and has killed two dozen people.
At one large pig farming center just north of Cairo, scores of angry farmers blocked the street to prevent Health Ministry workers in trucks and bulldozers from coming in to slaughter the animals. Some pelted the vehicles with rocks and shattered their windshields and the workers left without killing any pigs.
“We remind Hosni Mubarak that we are all Egyptians. Where does he want us to go?” said Gergis Faris, a 46-year-old pig farmer in another part of Cairo who collects garbage to feed his animals. “We are uneducated people, just living day by day and trying to make a living, and now if our pigs are taken from us without compensation, how are we supposed to live?”
Most in the Muslim world consider pigs unclean animals and do not eat pork because of religious restrictions. One Islamic militant Web site carried comments Wednesday saying swine flu was God’s revenge against “infidels.”
Pigs are banned entirely in some Muslim countries including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Libya. However in other parts of the Muslim world, they are often raised by religious minorities who can eat pork.
In Jordan, the government decided Wednesday to shut down the country’s five pig farms, involving 800 animals, for violating public health safety regulations. Half the pigs will be killed and the rest will be relocated to areas away from the population, officials said.
In Egypt, pigs are raised and consumed mainly by the Christian minority, which some estimates put at 10 percent of the population. Health Ministry spokesman Abdel-Rahman Shaheen estimated there are between 300,000-350,000 pigs in Egypt.
“It has been decided to immediately start slaughtering all the pigs in Egypt using the full capacity of the country’s slaughterhouses,” Health Minister Hatem el-Gabaly told reporters after a Cabinet meeting with President Hosni Mubarak.
Global health experts said the mass slaughter of pigs is entirely unnecessary and a waste of resources. But Egypt’s reaction was colored by its experiences with bird flu.
Bird flu started sweeping through poultry populations across Asia in 2003 and then jumped to humans, killing more than 250 worldwide.
Egypt was among the countries hardest hit. According to the World Health Organization, it has the world’s fourth highest death toll — after Indonesia, Vietnam and China — and the largest outside of Asia. WHO has confirmed 23 deaths in Egypt and Egyptian authorities have reported three more deaths in recent weeks.
Chickens used to roam every dusty street in every village across Egypt, and many of its city alleys too. But when the disease first appeared here in February 2006, 25 million birds were killed within weeks, devastating the poultry sector and particularly the family farmers. Chickens nearly all vanished from sight, slaughtered, abandoned or locked away by a population increasingly aware of, and frightened by, the disease’s stubborn grip.
The latest measure appeared designed to avert a similar panic.
Swine flu is blamed for more than 150 deaths in Mexico and U.S. health officials reported on Wednesday the first known death outside Mexico — a 23-month-old Mexican boy in Texas. It has spread to Europe, Asia and Israel, which shares a border with Egypt.
Experts suspect swine flu, a strange new mix of pig, bird and human flu virus, originated with pigs then jumped to humans and is now spreading through human-to-human contact. Health authorities have said you cannot contract the flu by eating pork.
“It is unfortunate,” the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization Chief Veterinary Officer Joseph Domenech said of Egypt’s decision. “The crisis today is in transmission from human to human. It has nothing to do with pigs,” he told The Associated Press.
In the northern suburbs of Cairo Wednesday, health authorities killed 250 pigs and buried them. Angry farmers demanded compensation and provincial governors paid them around 1,000 Egyptian pounds (about $180) per head. The farmers asked for an official government decision to set a price for each pig slaughtered.
Agriculture Minister Amin Abaza told reporters that farmers would be allowed to sell the pork meat so there would be no need for compensation.