Swine flu, novel H1N1 flu, 2009 H1N1 flu, North American flu, Influenza A (H1N1), and hybrid flu, are among the names for the new influenza virus that has been so much in the news lately. But it is "swine flu" that has caused the damage.
This new strain reflects a re-assortment of genetic elements from different influenza viruses of North American and Asian origin in pigs, humans, and birds. Naming the many variants of the promiscuously re-assorting influenza virus is hard to do in a way that serves all competing interests. Calling it “swine flu” was a disaster for pork producers, but calling it H1N1 creates confusion for public health authorities because the prominent “normal” strain of flu circulating this season has also been an H1N1 subtype; the 1918 pandemic was caused by a different H1N1 strain. This new strain could have been called “bird flu” but that, too, would have been confusing; we’ve already had our eye on the H5N1 virus, known more commonly as bird flu or avian influenza. Even Jon Stewart got into the act with his Snoutbreak piece. As much of a Daily Show fan as I am, part of that piece stung rather than amused because pork producers have been harmed significantly by those two simple words, "swine flu".
This is a virus that is spreading from human to human and there is as yet no evidence of illness in pigs (a suspected, but unconfirmed, case of novel H1N1 human-to-pig transmission notwithstanding). The factual bottom line is that pork is safe to consume; yet pork sales, hog futures, and stock prices all fell significantly. This physical virus damaged pork producers because its name became news in cyberspace (an ironic variant of "viral communication"), not because it caused disease in pigs. The damage was real nonetheless. Moreover, so much information can now fly around the globe so rapidly that I think there are no longer clear authoritative voices to turn to for trusted information; or, if there are, by the time those authoritative voices engage in the news flow the damage has already been done.
(UPDATE (5-6-2009; 9:05pm) This clip from ABC News last night has a good segment on the impact on pork producers, beginning about 3 1/2 minutes into the clip.)
Knowing this, if in the future there is a similar episode, how are these needless and harmful effects prevented or diminished?
Is it through better education in biology and health? Is it through more thoughtful choice of name at the outset? Is it through anticipation that this might happen again leading to consistent messaging that counters perceptions; for example, what if this virus dies down over the summer then picks up the pace again next flu season -- how will we forge a different outcome? Must "authoritative voices" adapt more quickly to take advantage of the same means of communication that are causing the harm? Or would that voice just get lost in the noise of terabytes and gigaflops of information overload?
I do know that veterinarians remain one of the most trusted voices in this country. What role should we have in getting out the correct message for a “human disease"? Yes, this is a human disease; but if we believe in “one medicine” and if we know the food supply is safe, shouldn’t we get that message out quickly and clearly? We are the experts who can authoritatively say this or that disease is not present in animals, that it is not being transmitted from animals to humans, and that the food supply is safe. Would it have made a difference if organized veterinary medicine and government organizations had more quickly put out information to counter the “swine flu” mis-perceptions? And in our messaging, how do we have to adapt to the realities of the speed of modern information travel?
I do not know the answers, but that does not diminish the seriousness of the questions.