May 4th, 2009
12:38 PM ET

What's in a name?

By David Martin
CNN Medical Senior Producer

Some illnesses get their names from the first person to describe them, such as Alzheimer’s disease, named for German psychiatrist Alois Alzheimer. Others get their name from a famous sufferer, for example Lou Gehrig’s disease, named after the legendary baseball player who fell ill with the degenerative nerve disorder also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Still others get their name from their origin, like the West Nile Virus, a mosquito-borne illness that began in Africa and now infects horses, cattle and people as far away as the United States.

With influenza, there appear to be no clear rules how to name a strain, and that’s ruffled some feathers.

The most lethal flu ever, in 1918, became known as the Spanish flu. The deadly flu that initially swept across Western Europe didn’t originate in Spain, but England, France and Germany all had blackouts on news that might lower morale. They remained mum on the deadly influenza. Spain was neutral and had no such blackout. Spanish newspapers published stories about local outbreaks, giving rise to that country’s strong association with the deadly pandemic, which eventually killed 20 million or more not only in Europe but across the globe. Competing theories put the real ground zero of the Spanish flu either in Kansas or British training camps in France and England.

A few years back, when a potentially deadly flu began in Asia, it took the name of the source of the illness: avian influenza, or bird flu. People contracted the disease through contact with domesticated chicken, ducks and turkeys infected with the virus or surfaces contaminated with their waste. Hence the name. There were no outcries from the poultry industry, and the virus also known as H5N1 has kept the moniker “bird flu.”

When health officials dubbed the cause of the current outbreak “swine flu” because it contains pig genes, they sparked an uproar. The pork industry cried foul, claiming the name was misleading and bad for business (The new virus actually combines two human viruses, a pig virus and a bird virus). CNN received a flood of e-mails asking whether the virus can be spread by eating pork (It can’t). China and the Philippines stopped importing U.S. pork. Russia banned pork, meat and poultry from states where the outbreak had been reported. Egypt ordered the slaughter of that nation’s 300,000 pigs.

At an emergency Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on the outbreak last week, Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat from the pig-rich state of Iowa, focused not only on the size or spread of the outbreak but its name.

“But why wouldn't it be called an avian virus, if it has the avian genes as well as the swine genes?” Harkin asked Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Fauci’s response: “When it has a pig gene in it, you generally call it a swine virus. The reason why we don't say swine, bird, human is that we don't usually see a triple reassortment. This is a very unusual situation.”

Last week, health officials in the United States renamed the virus at the heart of the global outbreak “2009 H1N1.” H1N1 is a scientific designation describing the physical characteristics of the virus. The European Union and World Health Organization followed suit. The WHO is now calling the virus H1N1 influenza A.

Despite the name change, the initial swine flu designation may dog the pork industry for some time to come – and may give health officials pause the next time they attach a name to a virus.

Editor’s Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.

About this blog

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.