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European journal says it's time to find a better name for swine flu

TORONTO - It is time to find a better name for swine flu and the disease it causes, a European public health journal said Thursday.

TORONTO - It is time to find a better name for swine flu and the disease it causes, a European public health journal said Thursday.

An unsigned editorial in Eurosurveillance, a journal published by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, suggests none of the names currently used to identify the new flu virus are workable. The editorialists, tongues firmly in cheeks, makes that point right off the top.

"The currently circulating new novel Mexican North American Californian swine-like influenza A(H1N1) virus of swine origin has been named and renamed more than once since its recognition a month ago," they wrote in the item's opening line.

"It is time to agree on names for the virus, and for the disease it causes."

The virus, a hybrid or reassortant of two flu viruses that circulate in pigs, was first identified by influenza experts at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in mid-April. Based on molecular analysis of its genes, they declared the new virus was a form of swine flu.

Within days, it was simply "swine flu."

The fact that the virus had never been seen before in pigs - or any other species for that matter - didn't stop the moniker from taking hold. That headline-friendly name has stuck in the media and among the general public.

But the association has been an ill-fated one for the porcine set.

Pork sales dropped off precipitously over unfounded fears the virus could be contracted from eating pork products. In Egypt, an estimated 300,000 pigs were slaughtered, reputedly to reduce the risk of spread. In Afghanistan, the sole known pig in the country was quarantined in a zoo.

Pork producers protested. The American administration started insisting the new virus be referred to as the 2009 H1N1 or some variation thereof.

The case was taken up by two international animal health agencies, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome and the Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health (better known as the OIE). Those entities pressed the point with their sister agency, the World Health Organization.

On April 30, the WHO announced it would no longer use the term swine flu, instead calling the virus influenza A H1N1 or H1N1 for short. National public health agencies like the CDC and the Public Health Agency of Canada followed suit.

There was just one problem with that move. There is already an influenza A H1N1 virus circulating among people - it's part of the swarm of influenza viruses that cause illness during flu season. And with flu season about to start south of the Equator, people will need a way to differentiate H1N1 from H1N1, the editorial suggests.

"The name of the virus will have to become more specific quite quickly as there are already the circulating A(H1N1) seasonal viruses which are quite different from the new virus," the editors say.

"With the Southern Hemisphere influenza season nearly upon us there will be two 'A(H1N1)' viruses co-circulating. Different names will be essential in this respect."

Some scientists refer to the strain as "the Mexican virus" - a term to which Mexican authorities strenuously object.

Scientifically there is an argument to be made that it could be called the California virus. The first of these new viruses that was spotted - which stands as the reference strain for this family in the flu logs - was taken from a child in California. So it bears the name A/California.

Calling the swine virus the "new" or "novel" H1N1 is not a name that can stand the test of time, the editorial argues.

They suggest an option that might work is to call the virus something like influenza A H1N1 with "swl" or "SL" attached by a hyphen - both are short forms for swine-like.

They also suggest a better name is needed for the disease caused by the virus, because regardless of the origin of the genes in the causative flu virus, it is now causing human influenza.

But they admit dislodging the term swine flu from common parlance may be hard: "The term 'swine flu' has been used so extensively in the media that it will be difficult to get rid of it."

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Follow Canadian Press Medical Writer Helen Branswell's flu updates on Twitter at CP-Branswell

 
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