Since the first reports of a new strain of H1N1 influenza virus causing human casualties in Mexico, and then in other countries there has been a deluge of news, special reports, opinions and interviews on the topic. Most of them erroneously refer to the disease as “Swine Flu”.
However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, the new virus has both human and avian influenza genetic sequences in addition to genetic sequences from swine influenza virus.
Given that the new virus has not been isolated from pigs in Mexico or anywhere else, pig producers and the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) have justifiably argued that the use of the term – “swine influenza” is misleading and damaging to the pig farming industry. The OIE issued a statement on Monday suggesting that the new disease should be labelled “North American Influenza,” in keeping with a tradition of naming influenza pandemics after the regions where they were first identified, including Spanish flu of 1918 to 1919, Asian flu of 1957 to 1958 and Hong Kong flu of 1967 to 1968.
However, despite the OIE statement and the fact that no case of influenza in pigs is confirmed, individual countries have been introducing various measures to prevent further spread of the disease via pigs. Some countries, including China, European Union and Russia, have banned the import of live pigs and pork products, which has immediately led to a 10% fall in prices of pork meat. Even more drastic measures have been reported in attempts to prevent further spread of “swine influenza”. According to media reports, Egypt has ordered culling of its entire pig population.
It appears that health professionals are taking notice of the importance of using correct terminology to describe the current disease and have been using terms such as “influenza” or “H1N1 virus” rather than “swine influenza”. For example, Dr Margaret Chan, the WHO Director-General, announced in her statement that the WHO has raised the current level of “influenza“ pandemic alert from phase 4 to phase 5, and did not refer to the term “swine flu”. Similarly, the US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack went out of his way at a press conference in Washington to refer to the virus as the “H1N1 virus” stating “This is not a food-borne illness, virus — it is not correct to refer to it as swine flu because really that’s not what this is about.”
However, the media still continue to use the term “swine flu” widely to describe the disease, and therefore it is not surprising that pigs are being culled, without any evidence of influenza in pigs.