GENEVA (AFP) — Whether it is swine flu, "Mexican", "North American" or "novel", a debate is raging over the name for the type of influenza that is feared to have caused over 150 deaths in Mexico.
Farming and economic lobby groups have objected to the term swine flu, arguing that it could have a disastrous impact on pork sales and pig farmers even though the World Health Organisation has underlined that the virus cannot be caught by eating cooked or "properly handled" meat.
Brazilian pork producers on Tuesday asked the WHO to change the name to "North American flu" or even "Mexican flu" in order to avoid potentially huge losses for farmers and the meat processing industry as frightened consumers desert their produce.
The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) brought the debate to an official level on Monday, arguing that it was "not justified" to call it swine influenza because the virus had not been found in animals so far.
"The avian strain is of American origin, and of the two swine strains, one is American origin and the other appears to be Asian. The human strain is American," said Bernard Vallat, secretary general of the OIE.
"It would be really unfair to penalise pig farmers, who depend on their output for their livelihood, by talking about a risk which is not at all proven," said Vallat.
US officials were pondering the name as they tried to counter embargoes countries have imposed on pig imports from the United States.
"It's important to not refer to swine flu. It's important to convey the message that consuming pork will not cause this illness," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said.
Richard Besser, director of the US Centers for Disease Control acknowledged that there had been a fair amount of public misconception, adding, "and that's not helpful."
The OIE noted that past epidemics of human influenza epidemics with animal origin had been named after their geographical origin, such as Spanish flu or Asian flu.
But even that can cause difficulties.
Mexico, which is already facing a huge drop in tourism to its coastal resorts as some tour operators call off trips, protested after an Israeli government official suggested an alternative.
"We will use the term Mexican flu in order not to have to pronounce the word swine," Deputy Health Minister Yakov Litzman of the ultra-religious United Torah Judaism party said on Monday.
His government colleagues later dismissed the suggestion.
Eating of pork is prohibited by Judaism, the religion practised by the majority of Israelis. Islam, adhered to by most of Israel's Arab minority, likewise bans consumption of pork.
EU Commission is calling it "'novel flu virus' just to avoid the misunderstandings with the animal diseases because it costs a lot to the industry," said spokeswoman Nina Papadoulaki.
"In this case we have human-to-human transmission so it is a human virus not an animal disease."
However, the World Health Organization has not budged from "swine flu."
Assistant Director General Keiji Fukuda warned Tuesday that the naming of epidemics "can be very confusing."
"This epidemic started basically with that name and the virus that is identified is a swine influenza virus."
"Right now we do not have any plans to try to introduce any new names for this disease," he told journalists.
The WHO's "Frequently Asked Questions" on the swine influenza family says that "outbreaks in pigs occur year round" while "outbreaks and sporadic human infection with swine influenza have been occasionally reported."
Pigs, it noted, can also be infected with human and avian influenza.
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