WASHINGTON – Is the name swine flu hogwash?
U.S. officials said Tuesday they may abandon the term swine flu, for fear it's confusing people into thinking they could catch it from pork — which is flat-out wrong.
"We're discussing, is there a better way to describe this that would not lead to inappropriate actions on people's part?" said Dr. Richard Besser, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "In the public, we've been seeing a fair amount of misconception ... and that's not helpful."
CDC scientists discovered the never-before-seen strain of influenza, a mix of pig, human and bird viruses — and while scientifically it's part of the Type A/H1N1 family of influenza, they shortened the name to new swine flu.
Immediately, U.S. officials rushed to assure people that it's impossible to get pig strains of influenza from food. But by last weekend, China, Russia and Ukraine were banning imports of pork from Mexico and certain U.S. states, and other governments were increasing screening of pork imports.
Then came name complaints from abroad. Israeli officials on Monday suggested renaming it Mexican flu, saying the reference to pigs is offensive to Muslim and Jewish sensitivities over pork. While the biggest outbreak and most serious illness so far is in Mexico, scientists don't yet have proof that's where the new virus originated.
Naming flu, in fact, has a problematic history. The infamous 1918 pandemic was first called the Spanish flu, although scientists today all agree it didn't start there. It may have started in Kansas.
What to call the novel swine flu now? CDC's Besser told reporters that the government hasn't decided yet on a change. But a Department of Homeland Security notice suggested the boring scientific route: "The current influenza situation should be referred to as H1N1 Flu Outbreak."
But a change would be hard, not just because "new swine flu" has entered the public lexicon. Even official health-advice Web addresses use it: http://www.cdc.gov/swineflu.
Still, at the Agriculture Department, Secretary Tom Vilsack pushed a change, saying the American hog industry is sound; there are no known sick U.S. pigs.
"We have no indication that any swine from the United States has been infected," Vilsack said. "We are open for business. We believe that there is no reason to stop or ban pork or pork products from the United States."
Added U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk: "We want to make sure that a handful of our trading partners don't take advantage of this legitimate concern over public health and engage in behavior that could also damage the world's economy."
Groups representing the pork industry — including the National Pork Producers Council, the National Pork Board and the American Meat Institute — have all been in talks with the Agriculture Department asking officials to discourage the name "swine flu" and to reassure the public that pork is safe.