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What’s in a name? ‘Swine flu’ sparks weird reactions

Eating pork’s not a problem – but tell that to Egypt and South Korea. Hence we’ll see more “H1N1.”

Are hogs getting a bad rap? Is the swine flu misnamed? What should we call the virus that is making its way around the United States and the globe?

 As you’ve no doubt noticed, politicians and pig farmers are not happy with the name swine flu: You can’t get ill from eating pork, they argue, and furthermore it’s unfairly killing our business, which is worth $97 billion annually in the United States alone. And they are correct: hog futures took a beating – down almost 10 percent – in the week after the disclosure of the first flu case. Grain futures also fell on speculation that demand will fall, although corn prices started to recover after a few days. At the upper end of the panic scale, Egypt – which at the time had no documented cases of H1N1 in the country – began slaughtering its entire pig herd.

 President Obama, members of his Cabinet and the World Health Organization let it be known that they will call the influenza outbreak by its scientific name, H1N1. (No one got the word to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which still uses the swine flu name.) Ag groups took out full-page newspaper ads urging folks not to pass on the bacon; grocers are running specials on pork roasts and chops.

Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, chair of the House’s ag committee, said the damage to the pork industry has already been done. “It shouldn’t be called the ‘swine flu,’ ” Peterson said. “But I don’t think it’ll do much good now. It’s too late.”

Several nations banned pork imports
Several countries, including South Korea, have banned U.S. pork imports since the outbreak. In Afghanistan, where eating pork is illegal, the country’s one-and-only pig, which lives in a Kabul zoo, is now quarantined.

The name swine flu came about because the virus originated in pigs, but scientists are less certain  about when it began or where. Six of the eight genetic segments of the strain are from pigs – the others are bird and human. To that end, Dr. Edwin D. Kilbourne, creator of the 1976 swine flu vaccine, told the Associated Press that the idea of changing the name is an “absurd position.”

The name swine flu has specific meaning when it comes to stimulating antibodies in the body and shouldn’t be tinkered with, said Kilbourne, now 88 years old and a retired professor at New York Medical College in Valhalla, NY.

No hogs in the United States or Mexico have been reported with H1N1, but a swine herd in Canada is infected. Canadian officials said the flu has shown up at a pig farm in Alberta, but the carpenter working there may have given it to the hogs, not the other way ’round. They said the carpenter recently returned from a trip to Mexico. The pigs have since been quarantined and the patient has recovered.

The pig-human connection is the focus of a debate over the relationship of factory farms to the flu. The existence of a Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) partially owned by the U.S. agribusiness giant Smithfield Foods in the region of Mexico where the first H1N1 case was reported has sparked bloggers  to accuse the U.S. mainstream media of underreporting a cause-and-effect between CAFOs and the virus.

No pig pics, please
If Egypt’s response is head-scratching, a memo sent from a legislative aide in Washington also falls into the “what the?” category. The memo asked all Democratic press secretaries to stop referring to the virus as swine flu, and then went on to all but beg them not to use any pictures of pigs on their Web pages.

As reported by The Hill Online, the memo said, “If you could please try to refrain from using ‘swine flu’ to refer to the outbreak (and please no pig graphics), this would be extremely helpful as the U.S. tries to maintain international trade and consumer confidence in our nation’s swine industry.”

A note of common sense was sounded in Minnesota when Doug Peterson, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union, said, “There are plenty of other precautions you can take to not get the virus, but staying away from eating pork is not one of them.”