Field of Science

It’s the 2009 Mexican flu - or is it S-OIV H1N1(A)?

Millions of people have already been infected by the new pandemic influenza virus, and the number may well climb over a billion. The CDC recently estimated that up to 40% of U.S. citizens may be infected over the next year, a startlingly high number. Close to home (for me), several children in my neighborhood came down with influenza just last week. They all recovered, fairly quickly. They almost certainly had the new H1N1 pandemic strain, which seems to be spreading rapidly despite the fact that flu season is normally in the winter. A postdoc in my lab was the first person I know who caught the new pandemic flu – he came down with it in early May, and was very sick for a week. (He stayed home, and no one else was infected, as far as I know.)

But the media are still calling this “swine flu”, in headlines all over the world. Government authorities decided early on to call it 2009 H1N1(A), a catchy name if there ever was one. In one of the earliest scientific publications, CDC scientists called it S-OIV, for “swine-origin influenza virus”.

Nice try, but the media aren't buying it. The problem with the name "swine flu" is that it’s not a swine flu any more. Once an influenza virus has become established in humans, it’s a human flu. If you catch the “swine flu”, you’ll get it from another human – not from a pig. So what to call it?

The choice of a name is actually pretty clear: each of the three 20th-century flu pandemics was named after the geographic location where people believed it originated: the 1918 Spanish flu, the 1957 Asian flu, and the 1968 Hong Kong flu. As best we can tell, the new H1N1(A) virus originated in Mexico, and therefore we should call it the 2009 Mexican flu. This will be accurate and consistent with historical precedent.

And by the way, this idea has already been proposed, but the Mexican government objected, so government health authorities, including the WHO, immediately backed down and looked for a more politically acceptable name. Several countries have already started using the term Mexican flu, including Belgium and Israel, as the AP reported yesterday – although the English-speaking world is still using “swine flu.”

As a side note, we now know that the Spanish flu should have been called “American flu” or possibly “Kansas flu” (where it really started), but during World War I, the U.S. didn’t want to admit that it had a serious health crisis, nor did any of the European countries involved in WWI. The Spanish got stuck with the name – incorrectly – because they didn’t try to hide the fact that they had a pandemic on their hands.

So a note to headline writers in the media: I don’t blame you for calling it swine flu and ignoring alternative names such as S-OIV and H1N1(A). But it’s misleading to use the term “swine flu”, which is already used to refer to influenza viruses circulating among pigs. Calling it “swine flu” also led to the foolish decision by some countries to slaughter large numbers of pigs, which was completely ineffective at controlling the spread of the new virus.

It’s a human flu, and it started in Mexico, so let’s call it Mexican flu.

10 comments:

  1. Well, logically you are correct, but in practice things aren't quite so simple, particularly down here near the Mexican border. There is an ugly trend among certain people down here to blame all ills of US society (crime, unemployment, even the subprime mortage fiasco) on Mexican immigrants, and the same racists had a field day with "Mexican Flu".

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  2. Go ahead and mark this post for later retread should "Bird flu" ever make the jump. Or maybe if the naming convention is to label influenzas according to where they originated (read: science's best understanding of their origins), aren't "swine" and "bird" the modern-day equivalent of the same practice?

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  3. Jonathan - if Mexico wanted to get out in front of this, they could propose (already should have) something like "Vera Cruz flu", using the name of the state instead of the country. Many people wouldn't even know where that was, but it would be accurate. How many people outside of the northeastern U.S., for example, know that Lyme disease is named for Old Lyme, Connecticut?

    It's a shame that racists used "Mexican flu" to advance their agenda, but I don't see how we can change their behavior one way or another.

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  4. > It's a shame that racists used "Mexican flu"
    > to advance their agenda, but I don't see how
    > we can change their behavior one way or > another.

    Actually, you are changing their behavior. By naming this "Mexican flu", you're increasing hatred towards hispanics in susceptible individuals.
    This flu is as "Mexican" as it is "swine". The former indicates its place of origin and the later its organism of origin. By now the flu doesn't have much to do with pigs and it doesn't have much to do with Mexica.

    PS: let's also call HIV "African virus". It originated there...

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  5. Well, I don't think that Mexico as a nation really was the major victim of the hysteria -- immigrants *from* Mexico were. Would "Vera Cruz Flu" be better than "Mexican Flu"? Sure. But why bring a place up at all? Does it actually help anything? Or, just like "swine flu" just lead to unfortunate consequences.

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  6. Although I usually agree with most of your previous posts, I have to side with Jonathan Badger on this one.

    Calling it the "2009 Mexican flu" is not anymore informative than calling it "2009 swine flu". Who cares what historians have called it in the past (since as you point out they are not accurate anyway). Obviously the best choice would be a scientific one (e.g 2009 H1N1(A)), but considering journalists will not use that I would prefer to see swine flu over Mexican flu in paper headlines. To me it is more informative and I would rather have the uninformed people be predujice to pigs instead of Mexicans.

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  7. These are good points, but there is a long history in influenza research of using the location of a pandemic or epidemic to name isolates. And H1N1(A) is not sufficient from a scientific perspective, because one of the 3 commonly-circulating strains is also H1N1(A). If the flu is from an animal, we add a modifier such as avian or swine, but if it is human flu, we don't use any modifier. So "H1N1(A)" would mean a strain of influenza A circulating in humans.

    History will tell if I'm write. We still refer to the 1918 Spanish influenza because we need this kind of shorthand. In a few decades, I think we'll be referring to the 2009 Mexican flu.

    However, that being said, I agree with the comments from several of you that we need a better system. Perhaps we can just call this the "2009 pandemic flu"? That would probably suit journalists, and in the scientific literature we can be more specific about what the subtype is.

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  8. I completely agree with Anonymous on this: calling it "Mexican Flu" would almost certainly inflame anti-Mexican sentiment, for the sake of a precedent whose only value is self-consistency. I think "swine flue" is a fine shorthand, no more misleading than "Mexican flu" would be.

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  9. I've been over in the UK for the past couple of weeks, and everyone here - including the government's National Health Service - calls it "swine flu." There are posters in Underground stations and full-page ads by the NHS in major newspapers, and all of these refer to swine flu. It's clearly a convenient shorthand and the name has probably already fixed itself in the public mind.

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  10. The naming problem is not going away, as no region wants to have a disease named after it. there is very little scientific advantage to using the location of origin( which is often dubious at best) in the name. so... lets come up with a new convention that produces a media-ready name (!). this is already done with Hurricanes with wide acceptance for example. As huuricanes use peoples names, lets name them after minerals. along with the year. thus we coudl have opal 2010 or diamond 2012, shale 2020
    the benifits are obvious in terms of promoting communicaitions. of course, the TRUE name of a virus is its sequence (entire). for a collection of viruses as in an AIDS patient the collection is defined by the pattern and populaition of the variants. that is not really useful for public discussions however. as far as human verses bird vs swine, if pigs could talk they would probably complain bitterly about the human viruses that they have to deal with and the unfairness of the label when the virus passes BACK to the human host

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