The Naming of Swine Flu, a Curious Matter

HONG KONG — What to call the new strain of flu raising alarms around the world has taken on political, economic and diplomatic overtones.

Pork producers question whether the term “swine flu” is appropriate, given that pigs so far do not seem to be falling ill. Government officials in Thailand, one of the world’s largest meat exporters, have started referring to the disease as “Mexican flu.” An Israeli deputy health minister — an ultra-Orthodox Jew — said his country would do the same, to keep Jews from having to say the word “swine.” However, his call seemed to have been largely ignored.

The World Organization for Animal Health, which handles veterinary issues around the world, issued a statement late Monday suggesting that the new disease should be labeled “North American influenza,” in keeping with a long medical tradition of naming influenza pandemics for the regions where they were first identified. This has included the Spanish flu of 1918 to 1919, the Asian flu of 1957 to 1958 and the Hong Kong flu of 1967 to 1968.

The debate is likely to continue as scientists and health authorities try to trace the disease. While all signs now point to Mexico as the epicenter, the genetic material in the virus there was a swine influenza virus of Eurasian origin. And influenza viruses tend to emerge from Asia.

Prime Minister Wen Jiabao of China called for stepped up measures on Tuesday to prevent and control any possible cases of swine flu that might show up in the country.

Many medical historians believe that the Asian and Hong Kong flus started in southeastern China near Hong Kong, where very high densities of people live in close proximity to hogs and chickens in rural areas and can share their viruses. Some historians also suggest that the Spanish flu also started in southeastern China.

But flu specialists in Asia said that the new virus probably did not make the jump from animals to people in Asia.

“If that is the case, you would see a lot of infections in Asia by now,” said Subash Morzaria, the regional manager for Asia and the Pacific at the Emergency Center for Transboundary Diseases, which is part of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization.

The neuraminidase genetic segment of the virus, which gives the virus its “N1” name and controls the ability of the virus to break out of infected cells, comes from a Eurasian strain of swine flu, Dr. Yuen Kwok-yung, a microbiologist at Hong Kong University. But he added that so many pigs are moved across national borders that it is impossible to place the location more precisely. On the other hand, pigs carry many diseases and rules regarding their import are export are strict.

There seems little indication of any outbreak of the new flu in China. There have been no recent surges in illnesses among pigs or pig farmers, according to Ben Boake, the executive vice president of the Henan Zhongpin Food Company Ltd., one of China’s largest pork processors.

Millions of pigs died in China two years ago in an epidemic so severe that it pushed pork prices up 90 percent. Veterinarians attributed the deaths at the time mainly to blue-ear disease, which does not affect humans, but also to swine flu. The Chinese government did not issue a public report assessing the outbreak and provided very few details to international organizations.

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