Swine flu: Are we libelling pigs?

UPDATE: WHO buckles, changes name.


In the past few days, the words “swine flu” have raised a lot of human hackles. Pig farmers say the label defames their product. Israeli cabinet ministers find it religiously offensive. Some disease experts see it as misleadingly simplistic, and while most media are clinging to it, the World Health Organization announced yesterday that it will henceforth refer to swine flu as “influenza A (H1N1). Was the WHO right to buckle?

Like a lot of verbal shorthand, “swine flu” has stuck because it is economical—and useful. The flu variant that has the world on a Level 5 pandemic alert must be distinguished, after all, from flu bugs we have seen before, including other editions of H1N1. Neatly encoded in this phrase, then, is both the origin of this pathogen (pigs) and its difference from other variants (it is not strictly a human virus). For the layman, it is a warning in two succinct words.

The pork industry worries that the warning will be misinterpreted, though, which is admittedly the last thing it needs. Struggling with the downturn in the economy, and already fused in the public’s mind with the grimiest forms of factory farming, it must now cope with the stigma of a pathogen that in all likelihood left pigs behind some months ago. “People will associate the disease with eating pork,” said Gary Stordy of the Canadian Pork Council to Canwest News. “They have a far greater chance of getting it from their neighbour.”

The industry’s objection is not entirely self-serving. Swine flu is not a food-borne disease, and the mistaken perception that it is could have serious public health consequences. People might assume they can avoid it by not eating pork, and fail to take other simple precautions, such as washing their hands or covering their mouths when coughing. In Israel, where large portions of the Jewish and Muslim populations do not eat pork, public ignorance of the dangers could accelerate the spread of the disease to unmanageable levels.

The “swine flu” label is also mildly redundant—like calling fleas “dog fleas.” As epidemiologists are quick to point out, pigs have always served as incubators for new variants of influenza. That’s because their physiology even permits the fusion of flu variants from two or more species of animal, which is exactly what happened in the current edition of H1N1 (swine, avian and human forms of the virus are all present in its genome). If we named every flu virus that originated in pigs “swine flu,” the term would quickly lose all meaning.

Still, it’s hard to imagine an alternative label that wouldn’t offend someone. Israel’s decision to call this bug the “Mexican flu” might spare the sensitivities of Jews and Muslims. But it’s hardly a favour to Mexicans (the geographical origins of the “Spanish flu” of 1918, in case you’re wondering, were never confirmed; it got its name after Spanish newspapers brought the epidemic to world-wide attention).  As for the pork council’s suggestion—“North American flu”—well, it’s vague to the point of absurdity. Why not call it the “Earth flu?”

In the end, “Swine flu” works because it is colourful and concrete, with an attention-grabbing power that may already be serving a redeeming purpose. Already, public health advocates are calling for closer surveillance of flu viruses arising from swine farms—especially factory-style facilities like the one thought to lie at Ground Zero of the current epidemic. Pork producers might not enjoy the extra attention, but this is the first flu arising from pigs in quite some time to pose such a threat to human health. So while the experts may wish to reconsider their nomenclature next time, keeping the swine in “swine flu” makes all the sense in the world for now.

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