What’s in a name? Swine flu vs. H1N1

May 14, 2009

Interesting conversation this morning with a public affairs professional working with the pork industry–a follow up to our PRSA teleseminar on flu communications. We were discussing the naming of this outbreak the “swine flu” and how that has impacted the pork industry.

As I commented earlier in this blog, I was amazed at how effective the pork industry was at getting the name changed to H1N1, but then the change seemed to peter out. Organizations like WHO and CDC announced they would no longer refer to it as the swine flu and it really started to take effect. But the change didn’t last and it appears now that swine flu has pretty well won out for the long term–much to the consternation of the industry.

How did this happen. My comment was that while I think the pork industry was remarkably effective at first in getting the change started, it lost momentum. My guess is that the media including social media commenters were participating in the change but found their audiences preferred use of swine flu. Plus, frankly H1N1 doesn’t roll off the tongue or keyboard nearly as easily as swine flu. (Plus you can’t make jokes about pigs flying with H1N1). I related it to a ball game with momentum shifts. The momentum was against the industry with the early moniker, but they made a heavy and effective push and got momentum going in the other direction. But I sense they underestimated the challenges and even if they didn’t let up, they didn’t have the reserve power to maintain the momentum in a critical few days about a week ago. If they had had the resources to steadily mount an attack on the name whereever its use occurred I think the media and public would be referring to this consistently as H1N1 (not too sure about the “novel” part–sounds too scientific).

Brings us to the long term issue of flu pandemic naming. The 1918 pandemic was the Spanish flu. This could have been called the Mexican flu but I suspect Mexico would have been as unhappy as the swine industry. What will the next one be called? The apricot flu? The mere mention of that might cause me to get unhappy emails from the apricot industry? How about the teletubby flu? Or the Hollywood flu?

I hope that the major health organizations have a discussion about this. I suspect they already are. Unless they come up with some innocuous naming system (like used for Hurricanes–although all females named Katrina might object) but one that works with the media and the public much better than H1N1 or H52N98, I suspect every outbreak is going to have similar naming issues. Funny thing to think about branding pandemics–but just ask the pork industry how important it is to get it right.


2 Responses to “What’s in a name? Swine flu vs. H1N1”

  1. h1n1 symtoms Says:

    Not only can’t you catch the current swine flu strain from pigs — it isn’t purely swine flu itself! It’s a recombinant mix of mostly swine flu virus plus components of both bird flu and human flu. That’s one reason calling it swine flu is a misnomer, because no pig ever had this particular virus

  2. Nonetheless, large-scale commercial hog farming is largely unregulated even in the US much less Mexico. Effluent from large scale hog farms after Hurricane Mitch showed on remote sensing after Hurricane Floyd in N. Carolina in 1999. EPA is ‘Studying” the issues in large scale hog production. Perhaps Margaret “Peggy Hanburg the new FDA Commissioner will also start a study. Is a disease factor a safe food producer?

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