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Can I Go Back To Writing “Swine Flu” Again If The New York Times Is? — Why The Term “H1N1″ Has Not Completely Spread Throughout The Media

October 27th, 2009 · 4 Comments

In the Spring, when federal officials requested that the media to use the term “H1N1″ instead  of “Swine Flu” to describe the pandemic, I — being the obedient oldest child that I am — followed their instructions and have been careful not to write “Swine Flu” in any of subsequent blog posts.

However, I continue to see that many in the major media are still using “Swine Flu” interchangeably with “H1N1″: an editorial in today’s New York Times is titled, “Swine Flu and You,” there’s a video feature on called “Swine Flu Latest,” and NPR has dubbed its recent special series, “Swine Flu: The Second Wave.”

As someone who writes about the topic a lot, I understand why: first, it’s easier to have another way of writing or headlining the same term, second “Swine Flu” is not only more colorful than H1N1 but it’s also more familiar to viewers and readers, and third the media doesn’t always follow government guidance. (And, in fairness, even the U.S. Health of Human Services’ @Flu.Gov Twitter tweets are still being tagged #swineflu, because it helps reach more people.)

Yet, last month, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack reiterated his plea to the media that “Swine Flu” be dropped from use, saying in a statement:

“Each time the term is used it unfairly hurts America’s farmers who are suffering severe economic losses during these challenging economic times. And each time the media uses the phrase “swine flu” a hog farmer, their workers and their families suffer. It is simply not fair or correct to associate the 2009 pandemic H1N1 influenza with hogs, an animal that does not play a role in the ongoing transmission of the pandemic strain.”

In a post on’s own “Paging Dr. Gupta” blog, Medical News Editor Miriam Falco explains that using the term is not only a matter of the economic fortunes of the pork industry, but also of factual accuracy:

“Back in the spring, when we first heard about ’swine’ flu, it was given that name because initial tests showed it resembled some known viruses that have circulated in pigs. However, the CDC explains on its Web site, ‘…further study has shown that this new virus is very different from what normally circulates in North American pigs.’ The agency explains that this new H1N1 virus has genetic material from viruses found in European and Asian pigs, as well as genes from birds and humans.

Plus, USDA officials point out that this is a human virus because it was first detected in humans. They say there are no reports of H1N1 circulating in any swine herds here in the United States. They acknowledge that Canada, Australia and Argentina have found H1N1 in a few pigs. And Deputy Agriculture Secretary Dr. Kathleen Merrigan says she wouldn’t be surprised if the H1N1 virus does eventually surface in U.S. pig herds. But she stresses that pigs infected with the virus would not be sent to market.

Of course, unless you are a hog farmer, naming the pandemic is obviously much less important than dealing with it (or in the media’s case, covering it). But as someone who has been dutifully following the terminology ‘rules’, I’d like to see other media do the same or else just let this obedient older child go back to using both terms.

[UPDATE: Jim Garrow helpfully points out in a comment (below) that some of the confusion may result from the Associated Press stylebook which instructs using "swine flu on first reference, then specifies H1N1 virus on follow-up reference.” David Stephenson in a follow-up comment says he's "astonished" by the AP policy "formally mandating inaccurate reporting."]

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Tags: Media · Pandemic Flu

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 DutchR // Oct 27, 2009 at 11:16 am

    If we start call it the swine flu again then could the treatment be called an “Oinkment” ?

    Just a thot…

  • 2 Jim Garrow // Oct 27, 2009 at 11:52 am

    Confusing much? The whole thing is a disaster.

    In my professional writing (for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health’s H1N1 response), I use the term, “H1N1 influenza” exclusively.

    That said, the reason for the confusion in the NY Times article is the fault of the AP Stylebook. See this tweet:

    “AP uses swine flu on first reference, then specifies H1N1 virus on follow-up reference.”

    See? For once, you can conclusively blame the media for confusing the issue.


  • 3 W David Stephenson // Oct 27, 2009 at 12:04 pm

    John: ain’t that first kid thing a burden? I hear you.

    Astonished by the AP Stylebook policy! Can’t imagine formally mandating inaccurate reporting.
    – David
    PS: trying my hardest 2 root 4 Yanks on your behalf. Phils were my 1st team as a kid, so it will be a difficult issue.

  • 4 At NYC H1N1 Vaccine Kickoff, Health Commissioner, School Chancellor & Media Help Students Get Through Shots/Spray; Officials Aim To Get Parental Permissions Up // Oct 29, 2009 at 7:47 am

    [...] was this article (accompanied by a video) on the website of the New York Times (which, continues. despite my blog post on Monday, to use the term Swine Flu interchangeably with H1N1): Despite an extensive outreach campaign — [...]

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