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Experts Shun Swine Label for Influenza Outbreak


As health experts learn more about the Swine influenza A-H1N1 outbreak centered in Mexico, many are moving away from calling it swine flu. There is debate on the connection between this flu strain and pigs.

Speaking at the White House late Wednesday, U.S. President Barack Obama sought to set the tone early for how the country is responding to the influenza outbreak.

"First, we are continuing to closely monitor the emergency cases of the H1N1 flu virus throughout the United States," he said.

Throughout his comments, the president avoided the term "swine flu," and instead referred to pandemic flu. Mr. Obama and White House officials had mentioned "swine flu" earlier in the week, but shifted away from the term as more information emerged about the outbreak.

Pork industry lobbyist Dave Warner said he counseled the White House earlier this week that "swine flu" may not be the correct term.

"Yeah, because it is not swine flu. It is a human flu, and it is of human origin, and that is why it is transmitted human to human so easily," he added.

Experts are still trying to figure out where the flu strain came from and how best to stop it. But genetic testing has shown the virulent strain contains components of avian, human and swine influenza strains.

Gregory Gray is the director of the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the University of Iowa.

"The problem with calling this a swine influenza is everyone thinks it will move efficiently in swine. But we don't really know that yet. It may very well have adapted more to human species, now you can say it's more human-like," he said.

Gray said these hybrid strains stress the need for health experts to adopt more precise terminology, such as dropping "swine flu" in favor of H1N1. A similar shift occurred a few years ago in southeast Asia, when health experts stopped using Avian influenza, and began using H5N1.

But Gray said even the name H1N1 can lead to confusion.

"In fact, the 1918 pandemic strain was an H1N1 virus that had a lot of avian components. And there are plenty of H1N1 viruses that are classical swine viruses. So even that in the scientific realm is inadequate," he explained.

The World Health Organization is now referring to the illness as H1N1 virus A. The U.S. based Centers for Disease Control still lists "swine flu" on its website, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture prefers the term H1N1.

The U.S. pork industry is especially sensitive to the name being used to describe the latest outbreak. Lobbyist Dave Warner said news headlines about "swine flu" may create false notions in the minds of consumers.

"I have had some [people] asking is pork safe to eat. There is a concern because it has that name," he said.

Warner said eating pork is completely safe, adding this strain of flu has never been found in any pig in the United States. And health experts said there are no signs the virus can be transmitted to people who eat properly handled pork meat.

Even for those who do not eat pork, the term "swine flu" has raised some concerns. An Israeli health official suggested the illness should be called "Mexican flu" because swine are banned under Jewish religious dietary laws. Similar restrictions on eating pork apply to Muslims.

But Mexico's government immediately rejected the use of "Mexican flu," saying it was offensive to the country.

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