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a highly contagious respiratory disease with flu symptoms (sore throat, runny nose, cough, aching muscles, etc.), thought to be related to a virus which infects pigs
'Swine flu: companies planning for mass absences … Companies are urgently reviewing contingency plans for a major swine flu outbreak which could see millions of workers unable to make it to the office.'The Telegraph1st May 2009
'In cases where there is some sense in raising public consciousness to alter behaviour, as was the case with Aids, then stirring public panic might be justified … There is no such sense in the case of Mexican flu. Those very few people who were infected and travelled elsewhere have responded to drug treatment.'The Guardian30th April 2009
Respiratory illness is rapidly becoming part of the zeitgeist of the early 21st century. In 2003 it was SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, the pneumonia-like disease which spread from the Guangdong province of China to 37 countries across the world. A year or so later, it was the turn of bird flu, also known as avian flu or H5N1, a highly contagious flu virus responsible for a number of human deaths as well as the culling of millions of birds across the globe. And in 2009, it's the porcine variant that has now hit the spotlight, as the world braces itself during an outbreak of swine flu.
indications are that the virus weakens as it travels, the majority of cases outside of Mexico resulting in much milder symptoms which respond well to treatment with anti-viral drugs
Swine flu, also technically labelled H1N1, is a virus causing a respiratory disease, which in humans manifests as flu-like symptoms such as a fever, cough, sore throat, aching muscles etc. An outbreak of this new strain of flu first occurred in Mexico, causing severe illness and a relatively high mortality rate in a significant number of cases.
Like SARS and bird flu before it, the potential spread of what seemed to be quite a serious illness has sent shockwaves throughout the world, leading the World Health Organization (WHO) to declare a pandemic alert (the possibility of a disease affecting almost everyone across a very wide area). At the time of writing, there are confirmed cases of swine flu in 21 countries, though the highest number are in Mexico, the United States and Canada. Up to now however, the indications are that the virus weakens as it travels, the majority of cases outside of Mexico resulting in much milder symptoms which respond well to treatment with anti-viral drugs.
Following the pattern of bird flu, horse flu etc., the term swine flu refers to a flu virus which has adapted to a specific host, in this case, pigs. However, though the term swine flu is being used to describe the new strain of flu currently transmitting directly among people, most recent research by the WHO suggests that it may not be caused by pigs. There is also no evidence to suggest that this flu is circulating in pigs, or consequently that the disease can be caught by eating pork.
And therein lies a controversy. In a bizarre twist, as well as struggling to formulate an appropriate response to the flu threat, it seems that governments across the world are also locked in debate as to how they should refer to the new virus. Government officials in the US and parts of Europe want to drop swine, fearful of the damage it may cause to the farming industry and pork producers. In Israel, health ministers have protested about the term swine flu for religious reasons, since it contains the name of an animal banned by Jewish and Muslim dietary laws. An alternative term Mexican flu, though predictably meeting with some opposition amongst Mexican government officials, is beginning to stick. The European Commission have introduced the expression novel flu virus, though this seems likely to be ephemeral if the virus lasts long enough not to be 'novel' any more. It's possible therefore that, as in the case of H5N1 before it, medical nomenclature may win out in the end. The label H1N1 is less appealing, but accurate – and not remotely controversial.
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This article was first published on 13th May 2009.