'Swine influenza' from a vet's perspective (now, can we all stop blaming the pigs?)
Let’s all call it “H1N1,” OK? Or “Mexican Flu.” Because to refer to this triple human-bird-swine influenza virus by its porcine etymology does everyone a BIG disservice.
No, I’ve not been sent here by the marketers of “the other white meat” to exonerate their livestock or to coax you all into supporting their industry. In fact, it was only when my son commented on his fortuitous aversion to pork in light of the “swine flu” epidemic that I realized this pig-citing misnomer would have to be dropped.
Just think about it: Playing the catchy name game may not be so benign if people fail to recognize that eschewing pork will NOT keep them safe. (Hello!...Only LIVE pigs can pass on a virus.)
And I’m not alone in my crotchety word-choice ways. The acting director of the CDC apparently agrees with me. He’s all for dropping the current flu’s given name...in deference to the H1N1 mouthful and out of respect for the pigs, who are by all measures no more at fault here than birds or humans.
Add to this the fact that pigs are currently out of the picture, given that NONE of the infected has been determined to have had contact with them, and you start to wonder why anyone ever called this bug “swine flu” to begin with. So in case you’re as curious as I am, here’s an explanation:
In 1918 there was a horrible influenza pandemic, called “Spanish flu,” whose origins were likely to have been in wild birds. Because it decimated both swine and human populations, alike, somehow it came to be more popularly known as “swine flu.” This was an H1N1 strain of Influenza A akin to the one we’re seeing now, hence the current terminology.
The genetic material contained within this current H1N1 influenza virus is composed of human, pig and bird-specific DNA. And that’s what scares the bejeezus out of the World Health Organization. A virus that can happily crash out on the sofa of three very different kinds of homes is one that’s got lots of cozy places in which to evolve into something truly scary. That’s the biggest reason why the WHO’s raised the alert level from three to five over the past 72 hours.
Make no mistake, this is frightening stuff. When viruses find a hospitable presence in multiple species it’s a recipe for disaster. Add to that all the other unknowns––how virulent is it? is it getting more so? will it hide out over the summer and come back as something devastating in the fall?––and all our officials are more than well-justified in their cautions.
Back to the pigs:
Yes, it’s true. This virus, if it makes it back to pigs, could exterminate our pork industry. Even worse, this virus’s potentially innate ability to hide out in the swine population may mean more dangerous strains in the future. That’s why the swine vets of this world are taking serious precautions.
Though public health officials in Egypt have taken the extreme approach of culling all swine to head off a reservoir of infection, you can bet we here in the US will be taking a different tack––for now, anyway. Increased biosecurity on farms is what we’re advocating now. Which means our farm workers will be implementing even more of the basic shoe-dipping, hand-washing, immunizing and showering they’re already required to do. They’ll also be keeping a much closer eye on all the pigs.
Now back to the words:
But when it comes right down to it, our pigs are not likely to have been the source of this infection––no matter what they say about the nasty swine farms down in Mexico. They are, like us––and the birds, for that matter––every bit the victims of this virus.
That’s why it makes sense, epidemiologically speaking, to stick to the H1N1 nomenclature. Why promote fear, fuel ignorance and effectively offer a false sense of security to those who would paint our pigs in a dusky light?
While I’m all for curbing our consumption of pork and improving conditions for swine everywhere, it makes no sense to tarnish the image of the noble pig with the incendiary term, “swine flu.” Just ask those Egyptian pigs. I bet they would agree with me.