Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Boy Who Cried Swine

Now that the swine flu pandemic is becoming a memory, we wonder if it really was all that it was cracked up to be. The term influenza strikes fear in humans and swine alike and it's hard to say where they will hit and where the next will come from.

Somebody, I hope it was not a little boy (as in the old tale "The Boy Who Cried Wolf") said the strain originated in an industrial pig farm in Mexico. Duncan Turnbull, writing on the Guardian.UK blog, says:

"It is thought that swine flu may have come from one of the industrialised and intensive pig farms in Mexico. However, the point is that this strain of flu is passed from human to human. Pigs no longer play any role in viral transmission and the newly mutated H1N1 virus is not found in them. Pigs do not spread the flu, nor can you catch swine flu from pork products. Given this knowledge, calling the disease 'swine flu', 'pigfluenza' or 'pig flu' seem tenuous at best.

"Yaakov Litzman, a deputy health minister of Israel, went even further, saying 'swine flu' is an offensive term as it refers to animals which are unclean in the Jewish and Islamic faiths. 'We will call it Mexico flu. We won't call it swine flu,' Litzman stated, somewhat to the dismay of Mexicans. Taiwan calls it 'new flu', the European commission uses 'novel flu virus' and the World Health Organisation 'Influenza A (H1N1)'.

"At the end of the day, referring to it as 'swine flu' is more than just tenuous; it is misleading and potentially dangerous. In Egypt the health minister, Hatem al-Gabali, bizarrely ordered the cull of 350,000 pigs. Four days later, hundred of Christian pig farmers rioted in Cairo, exchanging stones for tear gas with police. If the aim of the Egyptian government was to prevent panic then it seems it has not worked; if their aim was to prevent large groups of people coming into close contact with each other to prevent the spread of disease, then it has been a disaster. As one commentator said, only their capriciousness tops their ignorance.

"The last four days of April saw strong losses in the pork markets with lean hogs and pork bellies falling by as much as 10%. Evidence like this supports the view that such a careless naming may have dire consequences for a pig industry which has taken its fair share of pain over the past five years.

"As the chief veterinary officer at the UN says, 'It is not a swine influenza, it's a human influenza.' Swine flu is spread by people, not pigs. It would be a great shame if the rebranding of swine flu to something more neutral comes too late."

President Obama has begun referring to it as "H1N1 flu" which I think is fairer all around, to swine and humans. It is thought that it will return next flu season, worse than ever, while an effective vaccine is being sought right now. I've always been a little leary of the yearly flu vaccine, based as they are on somebody's guess what the next flu epidemic will consist of. Will I take an H1N1 shot? We shall see.

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