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A Flu by Any Other Name Wouldn't Be As Interesting to the Media

By Ben L. Kaufman · May 13th, 2009 · On Second Thought
Let’s call it Flying Pig Flu to honor the birds and hogs that contributed genetic material to the new influenza. Why not? For the news media, finding the right name was the larger crisis.

Flying Pig Flu is more politically correct than the Israeli decision to call it “Mexican” flu because observant Jews and Muslims who abstain from pork are offended by “swine” flu.

Unable to blame Israelis or Palestinians, epidemiologically-challenged Cairo officials want to kill minority Christian Egyptians’ 300,000 hogs. The animals did not cause or spread Flying Pig Flu, and Christians rioted to protect them.

It’s unclear whether a white or blue face mask is better. I’m waiting for birdlike masks worn by “plague doctors” in the 14th century. They didn’t do any good either, but they were cool.

So far, Bright Young Things haven’t headed for the hills to pass the time telling stories and recording them for future generations of lit majors. All we need now is a pogrom somewhere against some minority accused of causing the flu by poisoning local wells. And if viruses do not evolve, does this mean Flying Pig Flu is the product of Intelligent Design and the Creator/Designer?

I’m not alone in my gallows humor. Because there was such a fuss over naming the influenza, a reporter in an online chat room suggested taking “a cue from one of the past century's best musicians and call it ‘the flu formerly known as swine.’ ”

Finding the right name is important to a community. A name should capture the thing’s essence, and knowing its name gives us power over it. In the current epidemic/pandemic, U.S. and World Health Organization authorities opted for H1N1 instead of “swine” flu. Now many journalists use both terms to promote comprehension.

H1N1 is so catchy that it’s bound to grab the attention of the billions of illiterates who don’t know an H from an N in any script. The U.S. government chose “2009 H1N1 flu” while the World Health Organization uses “influenza-A H1N1.”

In any event, it sounds as if pork industry lobbyists worked their magic by virtually eliminating “swine flu” without killing a single virus, and U.S., Canadian and Mexican governments are telling foreign customers to keep buying their pork because the meat won’t give them flu.

Meanwhile, I’m puzzled by the lack of news media attention to who knew what and when they knew it. Or, put less charitably, did national and international health officials ignore credible early warnings about the outbreak of Flying Pig Flu?

Veratect, a Kirkland, Wash., biosurveillance firm, says it tried to alert officials with an Internet posting on March 30 to an atypical and worrisome case in a British tourist home from Mexico.

Veratect says it also posted a report on April 6 about an outbreak of an unusual respiratory disease in La Gloria, Mexico, and that residents linked it to Smithfield Food’s huge hog farm nearby. Since then, La Gloria has become the consensus epicenter of Flying Pig Flu.

Veratect CEO Robert Hart says the March 30 and April 6 postings were available to clients, including international, federal, state and local U.S. health authorities. He says his company server shows an epidemiologist at the Pan American Health Organization, part of the WHO, looked at the La Gloria outbreak message on April 10 and 11.

Veratect reported the disease was possibly spreading in Mexico with an “unspecified number of atypical pneumonia cases” detected at a hospital in Oaxaca. Because of the heightened concern, Veratect says it then sent an automated e-mail to 10 people at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to notify them the report was available.

With the outbreak apparently spreading, Hart says his chief scientist, James Wilson, called people he knew at the CDC’s Emergency Operations Center on April 20 to alert them. CDC then was focused on possible swine flu events in Texas and California, and a physician at CDC’s emergency operations center indicated the CDC wasn’t aware of the spreading outbreak in Mexico, Hart told The Miami Herald.

(Pressed repeatedly, Veratect refused to release its actual March 30 and April 6 Internet postings to nonclients, saying they were proprietary information.)

WHO’s first warning came on April 24, or at least 18 days after Veratect hoisted its red flag online.

Coincidentally, bloggers are pushing the U.S.

news media to probe the potential role of Smithfield’s hog farm near La Gloria, and National Public Radio again showed how valuable it can be in a crisis. Many NPR programs offer thoughtful, lengthy discussions of Flying Pig Flu, its transmission, its risks and the broader picture of how the country is responding.

It’s no accident that NPR draws top people to explain and argue their perspectives.

Curmudgeon Notes

• A couple days after I renamed the flu, the Times of London carried an online story by science editor Mark Henderson, headlined “Pigs will fly before we take flu seriously”: “It started out as a blend of two swine viruses. It has some genes that originated in bird flu. And as far as many pundits are concerned, the pathogen officially known as influenza A (H1N1) would be better named flying pig disease…” (emphasis added)

• There might have been a Typhoid Mary at the start of Flying Pig Flu outbreak. Quoting Mexican authorities, London’s Independent says the first person to die probably was 39-year-old Maria Adela Gutierrez, a census-taker in the southern tourist city of Oaxaca, “whose job required her to make door-to-door visits, putting her in contact with at least 300 unsuspecting members of the public when the disease was at its most virulent.” She was admitted to a local hospital on April 8 and died five days later, suffering acute respiratory problems that locals told reporters had afflicted hundreds earlier this year.

“Doctors initially thought Gutierrez was suffering from pneumonia,” the story says. “But when 16 further patients exhibited signs of severe respiratory infection, they established a quarantine area around the emergency room. Shortly afterwards, state health authorities began to track down every person she'd had recent contact with and conduct checkups. That discreet search suggested that Gutierrez may have unwittingly been a latter-day ‘Typhoid Mary.’ … Local sources told Veratect, the U.S. disease-tracking company which sounded the alarm.”

The Independent says Typhoid Mary was Mary Mallon, “an Irish chef who became the first person in the U.S. to be identified as a carrier of typhoid fever. She is believed to have infected 53 people, three of whom died. She denied spreading the disease and refused to cease working. Born in 1869, she died in quarantine in 1938.”

• Somewhere in Baja California, a Mexican federal marine mammal scientist is probably thinking how lucky he was that I had an awful cold, not Flying Pig Flu, when we were seat buddies on a flight from Italy to the United States. It hit him, he told me in an email, shortly after getting home.

• A local story too weird for The Enquirer has gone global. London’s Daily Telegraph reports that an anonymous 21-year-old Milford (yes, Ohio) man is running around in a superhero outfit, vowing to fight crime in Cincinnati as “Shadow Hare.” The Telegraph says, “He and other members of a group called the Allegiance of Heroes have pledged to make citizens’ arrests and intervene in crimes. … Shadow Hare has written on his MySpace blog — all superheroes have a blog — that ‘criminals and corrupt people will run out of places to hide’ now that his group has formed.”

• Regardless of the merits of the arguments, context was missing from The Enquirer’s May 8 story reacting to President Obama’s desire to end funding for the GE/Rolls Royce alternate engine for the F-35 fighter/bomber. Readers need to know that this is the fourth proposed budget (three by W) to delete engine development funding. Congress puts it back, saving jobs in Evendale and related U.S. and UK sites. This is an engine the Pentagon doesn’t want; the winning Pratt powerplant suffices.

• Obama is rejecting a Bush whitewash of retired military freelancing as Pentagon shills on radio and TV. The New York Times broke the original story. Now it reports that “In a highly unusual reversal, the Defense Department’s inspector general’s office has withdrawn a report it issued in January exonerating a Pentagon public relations program that made extensive use of retired officers who worked as military analysts for television and radio networks.

“Donald M. Horstman, the Pentagon’s deputy inspector general for policy and oversight, said in a memorandum released on Tuesday that the report was so riddled with flaws and inaccuracies that none of its conclusions could be relied upon. In addition to repudiating its own report, the inspector general’s office took the additional step of removing the report from its Web site.

“The inspector general’s office began investigating the public relations program last year, in response to articles in The New York Times that exposed an extensive and largely hidden Pentagon campaign to transform network military analysts into ‘surrogates’ and ‘message force multipliers’ for the Bush administration.”

Even after the Times stories, many broadcasters continued to use the same retired military as “analysts” without telling viewers or listeners of their ongoing Pentagon connections.

• You can’t make this stuff up. The London Daily Mail carried this start to a longer story last week:

“The deputy leader of the (rightwing) British National Party has attacked the Uganda-born Archbishop of York, Dr. John Sentamu, for being ‘anti-British’ and an ‘ambitious African.’ BNP number two Simon Darby suggested Dr. Sentamu had no right to preach to Britons and added that Ugandans were likely to kill outspoken foreigners with spears. Desperately attempting to prove his remarks were not racist, Darby could later only say he was himself an expert javelin thrower as a teenager.” (emphasis added)

• Michael Savage’s homophobic, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim radio talk show has won the ultimate accolade: British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith banned him among about two dozen others from that sceptered isle. She said Savage is “someone who has fallen into the category of fomenting hatred, of such extreme views and expressing them in such a way that it is actually likely to cause inter-community tension or even violence if that person were allowed into the country.”

His response was uncharacteristically mild. “Darn! And I was just planning a trip to England for their superior dental work and cuisine,” he told conservative WorldNetDaily.com. “Then it sank in. … She’s linking me with mass murderers who are in prison for killing Jewish children on buses? For my speech? The country where the Magna Carta was created?”

Savage says he wants to sue Smith under Britain’s tough libel laws “for linking me up with murderers because of my opinions, my writings, my speaking — none of which has advocated any violence, ever.”

• If you’re old enough to have driven a FIAT (abbreviation of the company name Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino), you probably are underwhelmed by the prospect of its engines and cars roaring to Chrysler’s aid. What most business page stories don’t tell you is that if you put four adults in curvaceous new FIAT 500 it’ll probably stagger along like its hopelessly underpowered predecessors, the Cinquecento (the earlier 500), which put postwar Italy on four wheels, and Topolino (Mickey Mouse) built before and immediately after World War II.

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: letters@citybeat.com



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