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Swine Flu: What's in a Name?

By Michael W. Smith, MD

You thought swine flu sounded strange. Well, try H1N1 influenza virus on for size!

It appears that the use of the term "swine flu" has had quite an impact.

The pork people say it's hurting their industry because it's misleading people into thinking that pork is bad. They have a point. You absolutely cannot get this virus (goodness, I don't even know what to call it anymore) from eating pork. Someone should tell the Russian and Chinese governments that. They're banning pork imports from Mexico and parts of the U.S. If government officials are taking such misleading action, what's the public to think?

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But the damage has been done. Pork sales have apparently fallen by 80%. It bears repeating -- you cannot get this virus from eating any type of pork.

This is not the only flu myth floating around.

The Israeli government has also said they would abandon the use of "swine flu," so Jews would not have to use the term.

Then, the World Health Organization has said it will use "North American influenza" to note, as they have done in the past, the location of origin of a potential pandemic. And then you have the Mexican government saying that the virus actually got into their country from someone visiting from Asia, where most flu viruses typically originate.

By the way, the U.S. government has also jumped on the "be kind to pigs" bandwagon and also abandoning "swine." As of today, both WHO and the CDC sites are still using "swine flu" on their websites -- guess they have a few things going on right now.

Got all that?

There is potentially a scientific reason to change the name. The name was originally used because this virus is one that generally stems from pigs. However, the virus has yet to be isolated from a pig, leaving some to wonder if it's actually a pig virus. Then, there have also been reports that the virus contains part of bird flu viruses as well.

But a report I read today says that 80% of the virus is derived from swine, with the remaining 20% being a mixture of bird and human flu viruses. Many scientists say that this is a swine flu virus.

So where does that leave us? I certainly don't want to offend anyone or mislead people into thinking things that aren't true. But at least come up with a name that people can remember -- and try to come up with something that makes sense. I'm just glad I'm not a government official that needs to worry about all the concerns of the world and come up with a name for a microscopic virus!

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