Media World: The naming of the flu
May 8th 2009 5:30PM
Updated Dec 4th 2009 11:54AM
When the first cases of a mysterious illness that killed otherwise healthy young people in Mexico emerged, experts quickly determined it was the swine flu, the same type of virus responsible for the deadly pandemic of 1918. As story after story appeared about the virus appeared, the public apparently believed that they could get ill from eating pork products, which experts say are safe if cooked properly.
Pork sales, which already were suffering because of the recession, plunged following the reports, according to the National Pork Producers Council, which campaigned to change the name of the virus from "swine flu" to a more scientific name H1N1. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization both now call the virus H1N1.
Most media organizations including the Associated Press, CNN and Reuters use both names. Though the NPCC applauded Gannett Co. (GCI), the largest newspaper publisher, for agreeing not to use the "s" word, a company spokeswoman said this is wrong. Individual papers are able to decide for themselves what to call the virus, said Tara Connell, a spokeswoman for Gannett.
Though the NPCC still bristles, references to "swine flu" continue to be seen in leading media outlets including the New York Times, Washington Post and National Public Radio.
"I don't know what is the reason they are still calling it swine flu, said Dave Warner, an NPCC spokesman, in an interview. "The flu has never been seen in a pig."
Scientist Dr. Henry Niman said Warner did not know what he was talking about. The fact that the virus has not been found in Mexican pigs is meaningless since the surveillance is so poor.
"At best, it's stupid," he said.
Indeed, scientists say the current virus which is sickening people has properties of bird flu, human flu and swine flu. Experts say that the pork industry is taking an unfair public relations beating because of the outbreak which they say has has exacerbated the economic stress producers were feeling.
"Ironically, it seems to be causing disease in humans, but not much in pigs," said Dr.Anthony L. Komaroff, The Simcox-Clifford-Higby Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School, in an email to the DailyFinance.
"And the virus cannot be passed to humans by eating meat from pigs. Nevertheless, some people are avoiding eating pork, and one nation (Egypt) has ordered the slaughter of all of its pigs-despite the fact that there are no cases of infection with this virus in Egypt, and even if there were the risk to humans would come from contact with other infected humans, not from contact with pigs."
All of these conflicting names may wind up confusing the public, something which the CDC is trying to avoid. The term "H1N1" adopted by the agency is vague, according to some scientists like referring to a Ford as a car or giving a general address of the intersection of two busy city streets. Getting the name of the virus right continues to be a challenge.
"This situation has been rapidly evolving, and so current guidance and other web content may contain variations in how the novel H1N1 flu virus is referred to," wrote CDC spokesman Eric Friedly in an email to DailyFinance. "Over the coming days and weeks, these inconsistencies will be addressed, but in the interests of meeting CDC's response goals, all guidance will remain posted and new guidance will continue to be issued. CDC's highest priority is on providing guidance to save lives and limit the impact of this outbreak on public health."
Even experts in the field have differing opinions. Anthony L. Komaroff, a professor at Harvard Medical School, said the scientific name for the media's favorite flu bug is 2009 A/H1N1. Infectious Diseases Society of America spokesman Dr. Aaron Glatt used the name SOIV (Swine Origin Influenza Virus). Another expert, Niman, of Recombinomics, a Pittsburgh company that tracks how viruses evolve, told the DailyFinance that he thinks the name swine flu is most accurate.
"This is the only swine virus which has been efficiently transmitted in humans since 1918," Niman said.
For now the pleas of the pork producers have fallen on deaf ears.
"It appears that most of the public, however, and even many health professionals, are still referring to it as 'swine flu', even though that is not the official name," Komaroff said.