Please don't call H1N1 "swine" flu – it's just not right

Swine Are Just Fine

I don’t mind telling you, it gets me every time.

The other day I caught the end of the movie “Babe” on HBO. Well, of course, I had to watch, once again, as (spoiler alert) the derisive laughter aimed at Farmer Hoggett turns to silent awe, then pandemonium as his Pig draws a perfect score in the sheepdog trials.

I admit it without shame: I’m a stone cold sucker for a well-told story that leads to a perfect moment.

“That’ll do, Pig.”

Stop it! You’re killin’ me!

But this time around it was a little different. As the closing credits rolled, I couldn’t help but wonder if this enormously popular 1995 movie would be quite as big a hit if it were released in 2009.

These are tough days for pigs, and hogs, and especially…swine.

Give me an H! Give me an N!

“PLEASE don’t call it swine flu!”

That request comes from the Davis family – HSI members who happen to be hog farmers. The Davis e-mail continues: “It has cut our income from our hogs down to way below profit. The flu has nothing to do with hogs.”

And the very same day, I received this e-mail from Belden Farms: “I am from a swine farm here in Kansas. The swine flu has really devastated our industry, just because of the name. Could you possibly use the initials for the flu, instead of swine flu? My grandchildren (teenagers) work in our swine facility. If there were any chance of them catching the flu from the pigs, they would not be working out there.”

So for Belden Farms and the Davis family, I’ll be glad to start calling this flu by its true name: H1N1. Not very catchy, but then neither is this strain of flu.

About three months ago, World Health Organization officials agreed to drop their use of the word “swine” and only refer to the flu as H1N1. Their reasoning: No swine, pigs, or hogs in any country in the world have been diagnosed with the illness. H1N1 does have elements of swine flu, but it also has elements of human and avian strains.

Bottom line: You can’t pick up H1N1 from bacon, ham, pork chops, etc.

Hard to get

As noted above, H1N1 is not very catchy. Literally.

When MIT researchers recently compared characteristics of H1N1 to other flu strains, they found that this new variety of H1N1 is not effective in binding to human receptors.

H1N1 has also been found to transmit poorly between ferrets. This is significant because flu viruses happen to affect ferrets in ways similar to humans. When ferrets were separated, airborne respiratory droplets were not effective in spreading H1N1. But the virus spread more easily when ferrets were in close contact. And this has been the case so far with H1N1 in humans: high risk of transmission in a close family unit, low risk of transmission in public places.

But while H1N1 is hard to get, an H1N1 vaccine should be pretty easy to come by a couple of months from now.

According to the Associated Press, the U.S. government is planning to purchase millions of H1N1 vaccines, which will be distributed free to states. And it appears that public schools will provide the launch pad. Never mind that safety and side effects are still a big question mark. Never mind that the seasonal flu vaccine is known to be less effective among younger children.

Never mind ANY of that. Kids will probably get the first big wave of H1N1 shots. But today, parents are more aware than ever that new vaccines often produce surprising adverse side effects – some of them quite dangerous. So it’s going to be very interesting to see if large numbers of parents opt out of the H1N1 vaccine offer.

The states just might end up holding a huge surplus of a vaccine that may or may not actually prevent a flu that’s hard to get in the first place.

By the way…

In the recent e-Alert “Model Behavior” (7/14/09), I wrote: “…about 115 doses of seasonal flu vaccine are produced each year.”

I was only off by a few million.

Several HSI members caught the error and sent messages asking about it. So just to clear up any confusion: About 115 million doses of seasonal flu vaccine are produced each year.

Compare that to the 600 million doses of H1N1 flu vaccine the CDC is reportedly considering and you have an idea of the enormous payday H1N1 is going to be for vaccine manufacturers.

“Swine Flu Shots at School: Bracing for Fall Return” Associated Press, 7/9/09, Candyblog,