Monday, May 4, 2009

Swine Flu or H1N1?

"Swine flu" or a strand of influenza A subtype "H1N1?" Try as federal officials might, the media continues to resist their call to term the "swine flu" the new strain of "H1N1" virus.

At a press conference last Tuesday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was at pains to say, "This really isn’t swine [flu], it’s H1N1 virus." He also explained why: "and it is significant because there are a lot of hard-working families whose livelihood depends on us conveying this message.” (At least ten countries have placed bans on the import of pork even though the World Health Organization has attested that H1N1 is an air-borne and not a food-borne virus.)

The hegemony of "swine flu" over "H1N1" is even more peculiar given that the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) reports that the particular strand of H1N1 virus (which typically infect pigs) that is causing the current epidemic has not previously been reported in pigs and actually contains avian and human components. It was only on May 2, long after "swine flu" had gained rhetorical currency that the strain was found in pigs at a farm in Alberta, Canada. Even there the story has a twist - the pigs had gotten infected because of their contact with a farm worker who had recently returned from Mexico, and not the other way around - prompting some to suggest that the proper nomenclature ought to be "human flu" or "Mexican flu."

But the media's job is to transmit the news in the best way that rolls of one's tongue, not deal with the fallout of their infelicitous use of words. To be fair, administration officials were slow to catch on. As late as April 26, two days before Vilsack's press conference, the White House and Richard Besser of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) were still referring to the "swine flu." Clearly, the pork lobbyists aren't going to win this battle and the malapropistic epidemic will continue. Administration officials should know that if they really wanted a working alternative to "swine flu," they would have to do a lot better than a robotic scientific abbreviation.

Our current malopropism has an ancient pedigree. The 1918-1920 H1N1 pandemic called the "Spanish Flu" didn't start in Spain (and probably started in Kansas). This is ironic, because the "Spanish Flu" acquired its name only because Spain was a neutral country in WW1 and with no state censorship of news of the disease, was offering the most reliable information about it. This ended up generating the impression that the disease originated and was particularly widespread in Spain. Even when the media is not trying, it defines and shapes our reality.

Why does any of this matter? Because words characterize an issue in such a way as to insinuate a cause and to frame our reactions. Sometimes, words can even drive mass hysteria. Consider the "swine flu" outbreak in 1976, which claimed a single life at Fort Dix, NJ. Because this particular strain of virus looked a lot like the one that caused the "Spanish Flu" of 1918-1920 (also misleadingly named), public health officials convinced President Gerald Ford to commence a mass immunization program for all Americans. The use of a sledgehammer to crack a nut was not without consequences. Of the 40 million Americans immunized, about 500 developed Guillain-Barré syndrome, a paralyzing neuromuscular disorder.

So let us pick our words carefully, lest our slovenly words presage our slovenly deeds.

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