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September 11th, 2009
01:15 PM ET

Stop calling it swine flu!

By Miriam Falco
CNN Medical News Managing Editor

The U.S. Department of Agriculture symbolically slapped the news media on the hand Thursday for perpetuating the term "swine" flu in reports about the new H1N1 strain of influenza that's spreading across the world.

In a written statement and during two telebriefings, the USDA reminded reporters that since last Spring they have “consistently asked that the media stop calling this ‘novel’ pandemic virus ‘swine flu.’”

So what's the big deal? Health officials say the H1N1 virus more closely resembles the pandemic Spanish flu of 1918 than a swine flu. The USDA says struggling pork farmers are being hurt in a big way when the virus is called “swine flu.” USDA officials stress that “ you cannot get infected with 2009 pandemic virus from eating pork or pork products."

"Each time the media uses the phrase ‘swine flu’ a hog farmer, their workers and their families suffer,” says USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack in a statement posted on the USDA Web site. “It is simply not fair or correct to associate the 2009 pandemic H1N1 influenza with hogs, an animal that does not play a role in the ongoing transmission of the pandemic strain."

USDA officials point out that China is not importing U.S. pork because of the erroneous belief that eating pork is tied to the spread of this new type of flu.

I am a member of the news media and I have used both H1N1 and “swine flu” in my stories because some people know the virus only as “swine flu,” which is what it was originally labeled.

So how did the confusion start?

Back in the spring, when we first heard about "swine" flu, it was given that name because initial tests showed it resembled some known viruses that have circulated in pigs. However, the CDC explains on its Web site, "…further study has shown that this new virus is very different from what normally circulates in North American pigs." The agency explains that this new H1N1 virus has genetic material from viruses found in European and Asian pigs, as well as genes from birds and humans. Plus, USDA officials point out that this is a human virus because it was first detected in humans. They say there are no reports of H1N1 circulating in any swine herds here in the United States. They acknowledge that Canada, Australia and Argentina have found H1N1 in a few pigs. And Deputy Agriculture Secretary Dr. Kathleen Merrigan says she wouldn’t be surprised if the H1N1 virus does eventually surface in U.S. pig herds. But she stresses that pigs infected with the virus would not be sent to market.

Health officials keep reminding us that the best way to avoid getting sick with this new H1N1 flu virus is to take the following precautions:
– Wash your hands frequently.
– Cough into a tissue or your sleeve, not into your hand.
– Get a regular seasonal flu shot now, and the H1N1 flu vaccine when it becomes available, allowing the highest risk groups to get their shots first.

And please don't call it swine flu.

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.


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