Egypt To Slaughter Pigs As A Flu Precaution

In the midst of the anxiety over the swine flu outbreak, the Egyptian government has ordered the slaughter of the country's entire hog population. Egypt's majority Muslims don't eat pork, so it is minority Coptic Christians who manage the country's pig farms.

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In Egypt, pigs play a major role in consuming garbage, but swine flu anxiety is sweeping the country and the government has ordered the slaughter of Egypt's entire pig population. That's as many as 400,000 animals. Egypt's majority Muslims do not eat pork, so it is minority Coptic Christians who manage the country's pig farms. And they say that without pigs, Egypt will be a much trashier place. Nor is it clear that it will be safer, since you cannot contract the disease from eating pork products. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Cairo.

PETER KENYON: A few minutes drive from Cairo's five-star hotels and tourist shops, residents of the Manshiet Nasser neighborhood go about their business unseen by most tourists. And when adventurous visitors do show up here, they're shocked to find an inner city neighborhood filled with garbage and happy pigs.

(Soundbite of pigs oinking)

KENYON: A young girl artfully balancing a large metal tray of food scraps on her head steps forward and tips it into a pig sty, prompting a delighted swarm around the lettuce leaves and fruit and vegetable peelings. All this is occurring not in an open lot, but inside what would be the courtyard of an apartment building.

As the pigs root through their trash, two men who give their names as Abu Atta(ph) and Abu Andrew(ph) supervise the recycling of non-organic waste, grinding up plastic and stacking cardboard and other recyclables. All of this has been painstakingly collected house by house by men in small trucks or the traditional donkey carts and piled into the ground floor of buildings like this one.

Despite government efforts to privatize trash collection, the old ways persist here, and Abu Andrew says if it weren't for them and these pigs, the streets of Cairo - never known as pristine - would be much filthier.

Mr. ABU ANDREW (Trash Collector): (Through translator) We can't do our jobs without the pigs. Do you see all this trash? Where are we going to send it? Don't you live in Cairo? Can you imagine how dirty it would be without us?

KENYON: The residents of Manshiet Nasser are known as the Zabaleen, the trash collectors. But the content they're used to enduring is now transforming into fear and hostility. Longstanding calls to relocate the pig sties outside the city are now being drowned out by demands that all pigs be killed.

Abu Atta says if people bothered to come here and see their operation, they would realize there's nothing to worry about. He says the health department was just here.

Mr. ABU ATTA (Trash Collector): (Through translator) We don't have any problems. Our hogs are healthy, and so are we. The officials came and took blood samples from the pigs and from us, and they found nothing.

KENYON: But few Egyptians are willing to brave the stench to see for themselves. And the general proposition that pig farms shouldn't exist in residential areas, let alone inside apartment blocks, has been endorsed by public health professionals.

Egypt has had three years experience battling avian flu and has developed a widespread campaign to change the behavior of people who handle birds, including this pubic service ad by well-known singer, Shaaban Abdel Rahim.

(Soundbite of public service ad)

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SHAABAN ABDEL RAHIM (Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

KENYON: But despite reminders like this one to use gloves and wash your hands, there is still a long way to go to contain the H5N1 bird flu, which so far does not seem to spread person to person as the H1N1 swine flu does.

It's not yet clear how or how quickly the pig killing operation will be carried out, although the government says the farmers will be compensated. So far, no one has ventured to answer the query posed by the Zabaleen: If you remove the pigs, where will all the garbage go?

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Cairo.

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