A virus by any other name

Some people call it H1N1. Others refer to it as swine flu. Still others call it novel influenza.

You’d think it would be a straightforward matter for scientists, public health experts and the general public to agree on a name for the new worldwide influenza virus that emerged earlier this year. But it hasn’t been straightforward or simple at all.

Reporters for the Associated Press dug into this issue awhile back and reached the conclusion that the virus everyone is talking about is indeed "pretty much all pig."

Six of the eight genetic segments of this virus strain are purely swine flu and the other two segments are bird and human, but have lived in swine for the past decade, says Dr. Raul Rabadan, a professor of computational biology at Columbia University.

A preliminary analysis shows that the closest genetic parents are swine flu strains from North America and Eurasia, Rabadan wrote in a scientific posting in a European surveillance network.

So does this mean it’s accurate to continue calling it swine flu, as the majority of the media and the public are doing? Not so fast, say U.S. health officials. One CDC scientist suggests the correct term is "swine-like." "It’s like viruses we have seen in pigs, it’s not something we know was in pigs," says Michael Shaw, associate director for laboratory science at the CDC. Another scientist doesn’t think swine flu is an accurate name either, although for a different reason: This new virus spreads quite readily from person to person, while traditional swine flu does not.

As far back as last spring, the World Health Organization said it would stop calling the virus swine flu, citing concerns that the name is misleading and that it implies, incorrectly, that pork is unsafe to eat. Unfortunately it hasn’t stopped some panic, especially overseas, that has resulted in painful economic ripples among the U.S. pork industry. And the virus is still often referred to as swine flu, although it’s also increasingly being called H1N1 or, more formally, 2009 H1N1. (The initials derive from the names of two of the proteins, hemagglutinin and neuraminidase, found in the outer coat of the influenza virus.)

What about the common practice of designating various influenza strains by the geographic area – Sydney, Hong Kong, etc. – in which they were first identified? In some of the earliest news conferences with the Minnesota Department of Health, state health officials called this "North American flu," since its first appearance seemed to be on the North American continent. I don’t hear this term very much any more, however, and in fact some of most recent information from the WHO suggests that no one really knows where this particular form of the flu virus may have originated.

At some point last May I started using the term "H1N1 novel influenza," or H1N1 for short, in keeping with the Minnesota Department of Health’s terminology. The word "novel" is important because other influenza viruses also contain H1N1 genetic markers - but not in the particular combination the swine flu/2009 H1N1/novel virus contains.

Is this the most accurate or descriptive term for the virus everyone is talking about? I’m not sure. But for now, it seems to be the best we have and it’s the term I’ll continue to use until a new or better one comes along.

West Central Tribune file photo