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Columbia Missourian

This is the last time you'll see 'swine flu' in a headline about H1N1

By Tom Warhover
September 4, 2009 | 12:41 p.m. CDT

Dear Reader,

What’s in a name? Science and politics.


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Earlier this word, “swine flu,” found its way to the lips of most of the world. Then our government insisted the virus that’s sweeping the nation be henceforth known as H1N1.

The Missourian’s usage has been about as dependable as the stock market. This week, editors settled on a preferred usage (drum roll please): “H1N1 ‘swine’ flu” in stories, and no “swine” in headlines.

The logic: You can’t quarantine the name any more than the virus. People were told it was swine flu, and swine flu is the language I hear in gatherings around town. On the other hand, the science that first put the swine in swine flu has since understood its roots better. So “swine flu” is either inaccurate, or accurate but incomplete, depending on your point of view.

I’ll let the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explain:

Originally, lab tests showed that “many of the genes in this new virus were very similar to influenza viruses that normally occur in pigs in North America."

More tests were conducted, and they ruled out our continent’s swine. Instead, “it has two genes from flu viruses that normally circulate in pigs in Europe and Asia and bird genes and human genes.”

Perhaps then it should be the “avian-human-Europe-Asia-swine flu.” There’s a mouthful.

H1N1 refers to two proteins on the surface of the virus, according to MIT’s The proteins have long, unpronounceable names that begin with H and N, according to me.

Most medical sites actually refer to the virus as “novel H1N1.” That’s as in new, not as in fictitious. The modifier is probably the most important description because the novelty is why officials expect it to spread so rapidly. We don’t have the same immunities that we have with the more common flu bugs, so more of us will get H1N1 “swine” flu.

The politics are simpler.

As you might guess, pork producers don’t much like their primary product associated with words like “pandemic.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization – just about every place you might look for information – all make a point of telling us that we can’t contract the virus from handling or eating pork.

I asked the Missouri Pork Association its opinion. Its chairman, Bill Kessler, replied with a long and thoughtful letter. He says his livelihood has been hurt by the whole naming business. He has company:

"A large number of my fellow producers are being driven out of business because of this unnecessary consumer anxiety.

"We don’t believe the nation’s media, in general, have given enough thought to the impact their use of the term 'swine flu' has on public health and on the livelihood of thousands of U.S. farmers. "

I’m willing to bet that that Mr. Kessler or his colleagues won't be satisfied by the  Missourian’s compromise. I hope he'll at least understand that it wasn't made lightly.

Meanwhile, it’s time for lunch. Pulled pork sandwich sounds nice.