A flu by any other name...

Is this the face of a pandemic threat?
Is this the face of a pandemic threat?Courtesy The Pug Father
No need to put down your pork chops, as health officials are quick to remind us: you can't get swine flu from eating products made from pigs. In fact, health officials have yet to find a pig with this particular strain of the virus. According to the CDC, the virus that's been making headlines this week contains not only pig, but also human and bird flu DNA. Viruses are complicated and mutate as they go from one host to the next, so it's difficult to tell just where novel strains originate. All of this has left many people to question whether it's appropriate to call the virus "swine flu" at all?

Pork producers say: leave pigs out of this!

They're afraid that the name "swine flu" will cause demand for their products to plummet, and have asked government officials and the news media to call the virus by it's scientific name, H1N1, which refers to the serotype of the virus - its particular chemical make-up. It's a rational fear on their part. Some countries have already banned meat and pork products from Mexico and parts of the US due to fear over the spread of the disease.

What do you think? Would a flu by any other name...smell like meat? When it comes to novel viruses like this one, what's in a name?

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

I'm a little confused—what you've written here is more or less what I've been hearing, that H1N1 contains a mix of human, bird and pig DNA. But then I read this article, which claims that this strain is actually pig-only DNA, that it's a combination of two common pig flus.

But then... I was also under the impression that this flu, like most flus around these days, is a "descendant" of the 1918 Spanish flu, which was a bird flu...

I guess what I'm trying to say is, is this my fault? I feel like I never should have kept my bird and my pig in the same aquarium, and I certainly never should have put lipstick on that pig.

I don't know. I'm all for "swine flu." It sounds kind of cool, and it has done nothing to lessen my ever present hunger for bacon, etc. Plus... I know the pork producers are all defensive and stuff, but... wasn't the first case supposed to have come from Veracruz somewhere, near a huge and sort of notoriously filthy pig farm? Yes. That doesn't mean that the disease came from those pigs, necessarily, but maybe it's a reasonable place for some extra scrutiny?

posted on Thu, 04/30/2009 - 2:34pm
shanai's picture
shanai says:

I hadn't seen that report from Wired - but it's interesting. Obviously, the story of where the virus came from is still unfolding, and when we know for certain, I'm not sure how much it will matter what we call it. But it's interesting.

The origin of the virus isn't really what has all the Pork producers squealing (yet). They're worried about the virology of an idea about their product: that's it's unsafe.

Personally, I have no real objection to the term "swine flu" since any name we give a virus is arbitrary in one sense of another. H1N1 is not very specific in terms of naming what is novel about this virus, but I think it does make people feel safer - like the scientists have it all figured out, so not to worry...

At least swine flu, as you point out, hints at the suspected origin of the strain (where it made the leap from pigs to humans...and from there to more humans), which appears to be a concentrated animal feeding operation in La Gloria, Mexico.

This is really no surprise. Basic biology can tell us that CAFOs are the perfect breeding ground for this kind of virus, and scientists have been saying this for years now. Biosurveillance published a timeline of the outbreak, but this bit of information about the factory farm where people started getting sick is left out of most reports. I'm not sure why?

posted on Thu, 04/30/2009 - 5:22pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

i am confussed,how can you tell if you have swine flu?

posted on Thu, 04/30/2009 - 5:58pm
shanai's picture
shanai says:

The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention's website contains lots of helpful information about the H1N1 (swine flu). They list the symptoms:

The symptoms of H1N1 flu in people are similar to the symptoms of regular human flu and include fever, cough, sore throat, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue. Some people have reported diarrhea and vomiting associated with H1N1 flu. In the past, severe illness (pneumonia and respiratory failure) and deaths have been reported with H1N1 flu infection in people. Like seasonal flu, H1N1 flu may cause a worsening of underlying chronic medical conditions.

posted on Fri, 05/01/2009 - 11:46am
DO's picture
DO says:

Per Mike Osterhome of the U of M the virus is a human virus with components of domestic and asia swine DNA plus bird and human DNA. What happens is morethan one virus with different origins attack the same cell.

A virus takes over a cell to make copies of itself and if 2 virusus (sp?) attack the same cell their dna can get mingled and you have a new strain. Pigs and pepole are close enough genetically that diseases can go from one to the other in either direction. Not the same as the 1918 flu but with the same potential. In 1918 there was a mild form that went away for a bit, mutated and came back later in the year and killed 30 to 50 million world wide. One expert said it would be "best" to catch the mild form now and be immune if the virus mutates into something more deadly. Remember, 30,000 people died from the flu in the US last winter.

posted on Fri, 05/01/2009 - 3:41pm
shanai's picture
shanai says:

I came across this site which explains in detail how scientists name flu viruses.

posted on Mon, 05/04/2009 - 10:13am
samanthapha's picture

Hey, I'm Samantha from the mentor buzz at the science museum. And i did a game on this article. And you guys should check it out. It's not the best, just in the learning process of using the program called Scratch. Hope you guys enjoy it.

This is the url to get to the scratch game, i've made


posted on Sat, 05/23/2009 - 3:14pm
ARTiFactor's picture
ARTiFactor says:

I did it. Cool!

posted on Sat, 05/23/2009 - 8:14pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

the swine flu is really bad it has killed many pepole. i'm just happy that i don't have it!

posted on Sun, 05/24/2009 - 10:16am

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