Swine flu -- what's in a name?by Curtis Gilbert, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — The disease shows no signs of going away, but the name swine flu seems to be disappearing.
Government officials at the state and federal level are now using the technical term for the virus: H1N1. U.S. pork producers lobbied for the change, and now they hope the media will follow suit.
At the end of last week, David Preisler noticed something disturbing. The flu was in the news, and he says myths were circulating on the Internet. Those myths disturbed Preisler, because he's the executive director of the Minnesota Pork Board.
"The biggest one is that there are folks that believe that you could actually acquire this virus from handling or eating pork, and that is completely false," said Preisler.
Swine flu originated in pigs, but the current strain is passing human to human -- not pig to human. Still, the myth is hurting pork producers.
Hog futures have dropped almost 10 percent since last Thursday. Preisler and other people in the pork industry decided the name "swine flu" was a big part of the problem.
"People hear the word swine, and then obviously go to the next piece of vocabulary -- ends up being pork or pigs," said Preisler. "And so it is a pretty logical conclusion that folks could reach if they don't know any better."
Preisler's organization appealed to state officials. And at a press conference this week, Minnesota Health Commissioner Sanne Magnan announced the name change.
"We're going to try to get away from the term 'swine flu' and call this 'H1N1 novel influenza,'" she said. "Swine flu gives a connotation that really it shouldn't have, and makes people wonder about eating pork."
At his press conference Wednesday, President Obama spoke at length about the flu, but he never used the word "swine."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also made the switch. The World Health Organization announced Thursday that it is dropping the "swine," too. It's going with "H1N1 Influenza A."
H1N1 is the technical name for this strain of flu. But University of Minnesota epidemiologist Michael Osterholm says from a biological point of view, "swine flu" is an accurate name for this type of virus.
"For the better part of 50 years, we've been calling it 'swine flu.' I'm very happy to call it whatever," said Osterholm. "I think the important message to get out is there is no risk from people eating pork of getting this virus. And there is almost no risk of getting any influenza from pigs."
So now the media have to decide what they're going to call the disease.
Jane Kirtley, who directs the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law, hopes news outlets don't abandon "swine flu" as abruptly as the government has.
"Had this disease not been labeled 'swine flu' at the outset, I would feel very comfortable saying we should be using some other term," said Kirtley. "But the fact is, for most people that you were to ask on the street, 'What's the virulent virus that's going around right now?' they would say 'swine flu.' And we need to make sure that the public knows what we're talking about."
National Public Radio is sticking with "swine flu" for now. Their position is that H1N1 isn't a very radio-friendly word to say.
Meanwhile, Minnesota Public Radio News will primarily call it the H1N1 flu, to be consistent with the terminology public officials are using. So listeners will still hear both terms.
As Macalester College linguist John Haiman points out, this new flu virus isn't the first disease at the center of the naming dispute.
"This very familiar territory. Syphilis used to be called the Spanish Sickness by the French, and the French Sickness by the Spanish," he said. "And it's pretty transparent what's going on there."