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What we call “swine flu”

September 11, 2009

A gricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack's accusation that the media is worsening the pork industry by calling the H1N1 virus the swine flu seems appropriate.

During a teleconference with reporters Thursday Vilsack reasserted that the H1N1 virus is not swine flu and that because of the label, the pork industry is facing a long-term depressed market.

As a news organization that is committed to providing coverage of the realities of the H1N1 virus and one that uses Associated Press content to do so, we face a challenge. At both the state and national levels, the Associated Press continues to refer to the virus as swine flu.

The Iowa AP Bureau Chief Carol Riha had this explanation:

"The AP has a national style for the flu - and it is swine flu. We wouldn't deviate locally from that style. It's an accurate description ... The H1N1 designation is a virus subtype. The World Health Organization announced in June that a new strain of swine-origin H1N1 was responsible for the current pandemic."

She also referenced an AP report that said leading experts found six of the eight genetic segments of this virus strain are purely swine flu and the other two segments are bird and human, but have lived in swine for the past decade.

The story also said the U.S. government wanted to ditch the swine label because people are afraid to eat pork, hurting the $97 billion U.S. pork industry. Even the experts who point to the swine genetic origins of the virus agree that people can't get the disease from food or handling pork, even raw.

"Calling this swine flu, when to date there has been no connection between animals and humans, has the potential to cause confusion," Chris Novak, chief executive officer of the National Pork Board.

We agree, and at the Times-Republican, we will continue to change the swine flu label to the H1N1 virus.

We do so because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells us they were wrong in naming it swine flu. According to the CDC, the virus was originally called swine flu because many of the virus genes were similar to those viruses found in swine in North America. But further study has shown that the virus is significantly different than the viruses normally found in hogs. It has two genes from flu viruses that normally circulate in pigs in Europe and Asia and bird (avian) genes and human genes.

In a April 29 press release from the Iowa Pork Producers Association announced that it was aligning with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in calling the flu outbreak H1N1.

"This really isn't swine flu." Vilsack said then. "It's H1N1 virus. That's very, very important. And it is significant, because there are a lot of hardworking families whose livelihood depends on us conveying this message of safety."

What we call this flu is important has has an effect both internationally and here in the U.S. Calling H1N1 swine flu is confusing to consumers, as Vilsack stated Thursday.

So, we'll continue calling the virus by the name our government uses - H1N1.



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