Sat, May 02, 2009
Lifestyle > Health > 2009 swine flu outbreak

Will flu name change put pigs back in a good eye?

2009-05-02 11:38:21 GMT2009-05-02 19:38:21 (Beijing Time)  Xinhua English

A pig is seen on a farm in Vienna April 27, 2009. (REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader)

BEIJING, May 2 (Xinhua) -- The world for the past week has been rattled by a fast-spreading epidemic called "swine flu."

Because of that name, pigs no longer serve as "food" in the eyes of some people and instead are viewed as "health killers."

Many people have stopped eating pork, several countries have started to ban imports of the meat from Mexico and the United States, and authorities in Egypt ordered the slaughter of about 3,000 pigs.

To ease pressure from the pork industry, however, the World Health Organization on Thursday announced that it would begin referring to the "swine flu" virus as "influenza A/H1N1."

Will the elimination of "swine" from the name of the virus help ease people's fear of the meat?

Let's start from the beginning.

When the new virus mysteriously appeared in Mexico in late April, an initial analysis showed swine flu virus in the combination. That led to suspicions from researchers that the flu might come from hog farms and that people might be infected by pigs.

The first patient -- a four-year-old boy in eastern Mexico -- happened to live nearby a pig farm, making the public more certain that the disease was transmitted from pigs to human beings.

The term "swine flu" thus was created by the media and quickly accepted by the public.

However, the agriculture industry, the U.N. food agency, and the World Organization for Animal Health repeatedly expressed concern that the term was misleading and needlessly caused countries to ban pork products and order the slaughter of pigs. The food industry also complained that the name was causing an unjustified clampdown on the pork trade.

Bernard Vallat, director general of the Paris-based OIE, told Xinhua recently that the virus actually is a strain of viruses containing swine flu, human flu and bird flu. Because of that, he said, it was inaccurate to call the virus swine flu.

Other authoritative agencies, including the WHO, kept reminding the public that the virus was being spread from human to human, not by contact with infected pigs. They also said that no pigs have been found to be infected with the disease.

Scientists don't know exactly how the virus jumped to humans and are working to find out the link, the WHO said.

WHO Director General Margaret Chan also emphasized the safety of eating pork and pork products "if cooked properly."

"There's no reason why people who love to eat pork should stop eating now," she said. "Please continue, with due precautions and cook it well."

The OIE said Thursday that killing pigs "will not help to guard against public or animal health risks" presented by the virus and "is inappropriate."

The real reason for a change in the name of the virus has aroused suspicions. Was it changed purely for scientific accuracy? Or was it a compromise to pressure from the pork industry or pork exporting countries? Or both?

As a report from The Associated Press points out, many leading experts believe that no matter what you call the disease, the virus that is scaring the world is pretty much all pig.

Dr. Raul Rabadan, a professor of computational biology at Columbia University, said six of the strain's eight genetic segments are purely swine flu and the other two are bird and human but have lived in pigs for the past decade.

"It's clearly swine," said Henry Niman, president of Recombinomics, a Pittsburgh company that tracks the evolution of viruses. "It's a flu virus from a swine. There's no other name to call it."

Will the name change ease the public's fear of pigs? Possibly. But more importantly, the public needs to be given transparent and up-to-date progress about research on the virus. The more people know about what they are dealing with, the less they will fear.

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