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Swine Flu: What’s in a Name?

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR  5/7/2009
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Pigfluenza. Hamthrax. Aporkalypse. Hamageddon. These are just a few of the alternate names suggested for the swine flu on an NPR blog.

The name of the virus also triggered a number of more serious reactions, such as concerns about the safety of eating pork, despite assurances by the World Health Organization (WHO) that the disease could not be spread from pigs to humans.

In an April 30, 2009, New York Times article, Fiona Fleck, a spokesperson for the WHO, said the fear of eating pork “has had an adverse impact on the livelihoods of those in the pork industry.”

Purdue University agricultural economist Chris Hurt estimates that in the week after the swine flu outbreak, the United States pork industry lost about $30 million, according to a May 6, 2009, report by the Associated Press.

Egypt reacted strongly to pork-related fears by making the decision to slaughter its pig population, some 350,000 animals. This decision angered Christians living in the predominantly Muslim country.

The disease can be spread from humans to pigs, however. USA Today reported May 3, 2009, that an ill Canadian farm worker had infected a herd of pigs with the H1N1 virus.

“Maybe it’s the hogs that should be more scared of humans at this point,” Hurt added.

Besides correcting the notion that pork is harmful, there are other reasons behind a growing call to rename the virus. On April 28, 2009, the Associated Press published comments by an Israeli health official suggesting the flu “should be renamed Mexican influenza in deference to Muslim and Jewish sensitivities over pork.”

Targeting Mexicans

Pigs are not the only ones tainted by an association with the 2009 swine flu outbreak. According to various news reports, Mexicans have been stigmatized as disease carriers, most notably by Chinese officials, who quarantined Mexican citizens after a Mexican man fell ill with the flu while in Hong Kong.

Other nations responded, according to a May 5, 2009, New York Times article, by suspending flights from Mexico, or by refusing to host Mexican soccer teams.

Some commentators suggest that such reactions are justified.

An item posted April 30, 2009, by The Huffington Post, an online news web site and blog with a liberal bent, contains a video compilation of comments made by conservative commentators suggesting that the virus be renamed the “Mexican flu” or “fajita flu” and adding that the virus could be the result of a terrorist attack from Mexico.

However, the article states, “As near as anyone knows, the recent outbreaks of swine flu in the United States have been the result of Americans, returning to America, from Mexico, to where they live, in America.”

An April 30, 2009, Los Angeles Times article made a similar point: “The whole issue of ‘these people bring diseases’ has been part of the anti-immigration rhetoric in America for as long as we’ve had a country,” said Douglas Rivlin, spokesman for the National Immigration Forum, a pro-immigrant advocacy group. “Yet so far the story has been mostly about folks who have traveled to Mexico and came back sick, and that is a very different issue than how we reform our immigration system.”

But such reactions are not uncommon, according to a May 1, 2009, MSNBC report: “It’s fear of people we do not know or who look different,” said Dr. Howard Markel, a medical historian at the University of Michigan and author of When Germs Travel: Six Major Epidemics That Have Invaded America Since 1900 and the Fears They Have Unleashed (Pantheon, 2004). “You take the fear of the unknown that already exists and then combine that with a real or perceived threat that is contagious disease and it’s explosive.”

According to the report, during the medieval Black Plague, Europeans blamed Jews. During an 1892 cholera pandemic, the U.S. blamed immigrant European Jews. And, in the flu of 1918, Markel said, “Italians blamed the Spanish. The Spanish blamed the Italians. For HIV it was gay men and Haitians.”

Such reactions prompted WHO’s Fleck to add, “I think it would help all of us if we could find a name that’s easier to say that’s more popular.” She even went so far as to suggest that the public engage in a competition to rename the flu.

Both WHO and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now refer to the flu by its scientific name—H1N1.

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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