Despite Industry Efforts, 'H1N1' Will Never Replace 'Swine Flu'

Last Updated Sep 14, 2009 12:39 PM EDT

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is appealing to reporters to stop using the term "swine flu," saying the term is inaccurate and hurts pork producers.

I agree that it hurts pork producers, and that's unfortunate, because anyone who's paying the slightest bit of attention should know by now that you can't get swine flu from eating pork. But the term isn't technically inaccurate -- the virus did evolve in part from flu strains found in pigs.

But politics and accuracy aside, the fact is that people don't talk in numbers, and 'H1N1' feels unnatural to say. The pork industry would have had better luck pushing any other name in the world as long as the name used actual words. The World Organization for Animal Health initially suggested "North American influenza." Thailand officials were using "Mexican flu" (though I'm sure those in Mexico's tourism industry didn't appreciate that one). Even the vague "Influenza A" would have had much better luck of catching on than "H1N1."

Vilsack addressed this fact somewhat, saying, "The job of the media is to get it right and not necessarily to get it convenient." But even writers who are primarily using the term "H1N1" generally wind up referring to "swine flu" at least once to make sure people know what they're talking about -- and to make sure that their online articles turn up in search results. And I suspect that in many cases, when people see "H1N1," the first thing their brain does is translate the term into something they can more easily understand -- "Ah, they're talking about swine flu."

In an ironic twist, there is now some concern that swine will be directly affected by the H1N1 swine flu virus -- but only because the epidemic may come to them from humans.

Related Stories on BNET Food: 'Swine Flu' Wreaks Havoc on Pork Industry, Despite Lack of Swine Connection Swine Flu Hits Pork, Migrant Labor Supply, and Even Chuck E Cheese

  • Katherine Glover