There’s a long tradition of naming flu pandemics after their presumptive geographical ground zero. The Hong Kong flu. Asian flu. Fujian flu. And the dreadful Spanish flu (which almost certainly didn’t start in Spain).
So why not the Mexico flu? Because – as Renee at Womanist Musings and nojojojo at Alas amply show – you can’t invoke Mexico in this country without dragging in a truckload of racist, anti-immigration baggage.
While I like nojojo’s suggestions of “Colonialism Cough” and “Greedy Gringo Fever,” I’m sort of attached to the historical naming patterns. So, staying in that grand geographical tradition, I vote for “Factory Farm Flu.” Srsly. Evidence is mounting that this virus mutated in a literal and figurative epidemiological pigsty: the Smithfield factory farm, which Amanda Marcotte describes as “absolutely swimming in pig shit and carcasses.” And Factory Farm Flu is nicely alliterative, too!
We do need a name change, because “swine flu” is misleading in more ways than one. For instance, Russia has banned pork imports from Ohio to try to keep the disease at bay. They’d do far better to ban imports of Ohio’s live humans instead of our dead pigs, which are completely incapable of infecting consumers in Russia or anywhere.
Of course, Factory Farm Flu might not help hog futures, either, but that’s all right by me. (Daisy Deadhead has a fine post on why this ought to be putting all of us off meat.) Swine flu wouldn’t be able to mutate so easily if it weren’t endemic in certain pig populations. The crowding of factory farms promotes viral transmission. The only effect of those buckets of antibiotics fed to hogs is to halt bacterial superinfections. Meanwhile, the flu virus merrily reproduces and mutates.
And then there are the echoes of the 1976 swine flu panic. At Salon, Patrick Di Justo has a nuanced account of the events in ’76, which I remember pretty well (I was 12 at the time). In short, a panel of world-famous virologists all agreed that President Ford had better fast-track a vaccine. By the time the vaccine was ready, public health authorities already realized that the epidemic wasn’t materializing. The government went ahead and vaccinated people anyway. Death and paralysis from Guillain-Barre were ascribed to the vaccine, though Di Justo questions that link. Even a single death due to the vaccine would have been one too many, because by then the government’s motivations were purely political.
While Di Justo’s airtight analysis sticks entirely to the events of 1976, an uncritical reader could easily infer wrong lessons for the present: Swine flu is inherently benign, and so we’re overreacting. Gawker is doing just that, sneering at the current concern – hey, all swine flu is the same, isn’t it?
No, actually it’s not. “Swine flu” just means that the viruses were hosted by pigs while they scrambled their sloppy RNA into new mutations. This particular H1N1 strain shows signs of human, bird, and swine origins. The pigs just served as big, pink, grunting petri dishes for all that RNA to mix, mingle, and mutate.
Finally, changing the name to Factory Farm Flu would force asshats like this Salon commenter to be a tad more imaginative:
This disease resulted from college students going to Mexico on spring break, who couldn’t come up with the cash for the local prostitutes. You don’t need to go to flying saucer theories to find any other way pig DNA could combine with human DNA.
Eeeew. At first I thought this referred to Mexican girls, but I guess not. Just one more reason to vote for “Factory Farm Flu.” And one less reason to hang out with the aging frat boys in Salon’s comment section. (Why do I ever go there?)