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Swine, Mexican, North American, H1N1 – what’s in a name?

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2009-05-06

The name game to characterize the latest deadly viral outbreak is raging – like the epidemic – across the world. In the ring there are pork producers, diplomats, health officials and their supporters joining in the nomenclature fray.


A deadly viral epidemic is raging across the world - as is a debate on just what to call the latest affliction.


With the epidemic alert level rising to level five out of a maximum of six levels, health officials are scrambling not only to contain the outbreak, but also to come to an agreement on a universally acceptable term to describe it.


The nomenclature list so far includes “swine flu”, “Mexican flu”, “North American flu”, “new flu”, as well as the more scientifically accurate “H1N1 flu” – to name just a few.


For English speakers, a further list of permutations involves swapping the term “flu” with “influenza”.


Shortly after news of the first cases of the disease broke last week, “swine flu” became the operating term across the globe. Despite protests from several pork associations as well as animal health organizations, the WHO (World Health Organization) is still sticking with the term, prompting several governments and media organizations to follow suit.


‘Swine’ versus ‘Mexican’


The term swine flu originated since it is believed that pigs served as the incubator for a new virus strain, which is a mixture of genetic material from swine, human and bird flu strains.


The search for the source of the latest outbreak has been focused around the vicinity of a pig farm in eastern Mexico.


With Mexico suffering the worst of the latest outbreak, a senior Israeli health official suggested changing the name to “Mexican flu” earlier this week. Israeli Deputy Health Minister Yakov Litzman, a member of the ultra-religious United Torah Judaism Party, urged changing the name to "Mexican flu," because swine are not kosher.


Following a strong protest by the Mexican ambassador to Israel, Frederico Salas, Israeli officials however announced that Israel would continue using the term "swine flu".


Enter the ‘North American flu’ – or ‘North American influenza’


But the term swine flu has seriously affected the pork industry, with countries such as China and Russia banning pork imports from Mexico.


In Brazil, a pork producers’ association informed the WHO that they would be satisfied with the terms “Mexican” - or even “North American”, flu.


But Keiji Fukuda, WHO's assistant director-general for health security and environment, said the global health body continues to call the outbreak "swine flu" because the virus is of the type that affects pigs.


"The virus that is identified is a swine influenza virus," said Fukuda. "We don't have any plans to try to introduce any new names for this disease."


But the Paris-based World Organisation for Animal Health - known by its French acronym, OIE - has warned that the term “swine flu” is a misnomer. Instead, the organization is proposing the term “North American influenza” in keeping with a tradition of identifying outbreaks with the region of origin.


‘H1N1’ for the more politically correct


In the US, there has been a shift toward the term “H1N1 flu” in recent days following concerns that “swine flu” would affect US pork sales.


In his comments Wednesday, US President Barack Obama noticeably referred to the new strain as “H1N1 flu”. Senior US officials, including Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack, have also switched to "H1N1”.


In an email to the US daily USA Today, Bill Hall, acting assistant secretary for public affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, explained that “referring to this virus strain as 'swine flu' mischaracterizes the genetic makeup of this virus and inaccurately conveys the notion that the virus is being transmitted by swine."



Date created : 2009-04-30