Name of deadly flu virus causes consternation

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - What’s in a name? A lot, when it comes to the H1N1 flu virus.

Hoping to calm consumers and protect the pork industry, the European Union’s executive Commission is avoiding using “swine flu” to refer to the virus that has killed 159 people in Mexico and one in the United States. It prefers to say “novel flu.”

Pork producers fear the term “swine flu” will not only cause consumption to fall but could also give countries an excuse to impose politically-motivated bans on meat imports.

“Not to have a negative effect on our industry, we decided to call it novel flu from now on,” European Union Health Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou told reporters in Brussels.

“We know that the consumption of pork is safe ... (when) it is cooked,” reiterating that there have been no cases of the virus being transmitted from pigs to humans.

Despite the Commission’s public statements, EU sources said it had sent an internal document in which the term became confused. It referred to “novel flu” in English, “Mexican flu” in French and “swine flu” in German.

Even so, EU members Slovenia, Italy and Spain, and veterinary authorities in the Czech Republic, have started avoiding “swine flu.”

Assistant agrarian technician Katja Meindl looks at some human saliva samples during the analysis for swine flu virus at an institute in Oberschleissheim near Munich, southern Germany, April 29, 2009. REUTERS/Michaela Rehle

Italian media still use “swine flu” but the country’s authorities refer to “the A/H1N1 influenza virus.”

“What we have is a media pandemic because calling it swine flu just pushes on the accelerator, causing unimaginable harm,” Italian Agriculture Minister Luca Zaia said on Wednesday.

The Czech veterinary authority prefers “H1N1” or “Mexican flu” -- the term also used by Belgian authorities -- and the Hungarian government also faces pressure over the name.

“Panic-mongering, rather than the illness, causes a fall in demand (for pork),” Zoltan Forian, director of agricultural consultancy company Agrar-Europa Kft, told the daily newspaper Magyar Nemzet.


Some producers are particularly concerned after Russia banned meat imports from North and South America. Former Cold War foes Washington and Moscow have in the past accused each other of using trade bans for political purposes.

U.S. hog prices have fallen because of concerns the virus could weaken economies, slow trade and hurt meat consumption.

Richard Bessert, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States, said “swine flu” led to the misapprehension that people can catch the virus from pork.

“That’s not helpful to pork producers. That’s not helpful to people who eat pork. It’s not helpful to people who are wondering, how can they get this infection,” Bessert said.

Israel has its own reasons to oppose use of “swine flu.” Under Jewish dietary laws pigs are considered unclean and pork is a forbidden food, although the non-kosher meat is available in some stores in Israel.

“We will call it Mexico flu. We won’t call it swine flu,” Deputy Health Minister Yakov Litzman said.