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COOK ISLANDS NEWS Avarua, Rarotonga, Cook Islands

March 23, 2002

The Prime Minister said in an interview with Cook Islands News (Friday, March 22) that he believes the risks involved in pig cell implant experiments are no different than with human-to-human transplants or when receiving a blood transfusion.

If this is the case then Dr. Robert Woonton has completely misunderstood the problem.

While individuals who choose to take part in any medical experiment may face risks, those are not the main concern of the New Zealand Ministry of Health and other medical experts who have spoken out against the Diatranz proposal.

The real danger lies in the possibility that a virus which currently only causes disease in pigs might cross species and attack humans. And Diatranz cannot guarantee their pig organs will be virus-free.

Species jumping has happened before.

In 1999 in Malaysia 229 people, mostly men who worked with pigs, became ill with an unknown disease. One hundred and eleven died. The virus causing the disease is believed to have come from pigs. Fortunately there was no human-to-human transmission.

In 1998 an outbreak of flu killed six people in Hong Kong. Every chicken in Hong Kong was slaughtered to stop the spread of the disease, most likely caused by a bird influenza virus that mutated and jumped species.

Scientists believe most flu viruses start out in birds.

Pigs can be infected by both bird and human flu viruses and often act as a mixing bowl for influenza genes.

The Hong Kong flu virus is very similar to a strain known as "Spanish flu" which swept the world in 1918, killing between 20 and 40 million people in six months.

In the 1980s cows in England developed a disease that became known as Mad Cow disease. It probably originated in sheep. Later it jumped again and infected humans where it was known as vCJD. This is invariably fatal but fortunately not infectious. Those who have succumbed either worked with cows or ate infected beef.

The most notorious of the species-jumping diseases is, of course, AIDS. Scientists are now fairly sure that this originated in chimpanzees in Africa, although the exact method is not clear in spite of millions of dollars spent on research. It surfaced about 20 years ago and now infects over 30 million people. There is no cure.

The real danger in the pig cell transplants is not to the recipients but to the rest of the world if a virus jumps species.

It’s happened before.

For additional reports from the Cook Islands News Online, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Cook Islands News Online.

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