'New flu' takes on different names as crosses borders

The flu pandemic sweeping the globe has triggered a heated semantic debate, with different names favoured in different countries and even top health officials baffled over what to call the virus.

Motorists pass a banner calling people to pay attention on the flu symptoms in front of the Health Ministry office in Jakarta on July 1, 2009. (AFP Photo)

The World Health Organisation, the UN body leading efforts to fight the virus, originally went with the term "swine flu" but then junked the evocative name in favour of the more prosaic A(H1N1).

When the virus erupted in Mexico in March, it was thought it stemmed from people working with pigs and quickly acquired the name "swine flu".

But the WHO now plays down this link, saying the virus is spread person-to-person and there are no known cases of people being infected by exposure to pigs or other animals.

Pork is also still perfectly safe to eat, the UN's health body insists, and classes the virus's place of origin as "unknown".

Media in English-speaking countries have stuck with the term "swine flu", however, while a range of names are vying for prominence in the Francophone and Spanish-speaking world.

In France, "flu A (H1N1)" leads the pack and is sometimes condensed down to the "flu A", which is also the preferred term in Switzerland.

In Belgium, the French-language press (such as newspapers La Libre Belgique and Le Soir) use the term "flu A", "A/H1N1" or "AH1N1".

The country's Flemish press such as De Standaard or Het Laatste Nieuws, meanwhile, refers to "Mexican flu", also the term favoured in the Netherlands.

Algeria has decided on "swine flu" in its headlines but adds "A (H1N1)" later in news stories.

In Italy, Portugal and Spain, "flu A" appears most often in the media, or simply "the new flu", which is also used in Greece.

Croatia and Bosnia refer to "swine flu" but Serbia prefers "Mexican flu".

The official system to designate flu viruses refers first to the type (A,B,C, with A the only one responsible for pandemics), the place of origin, a local code for the virus, the year the virus was isolated, and finally the antigen formula (H and N refer to the two proteins - antigens - which form the casing of the virus).

For example, the vaccine against seasonal flu last year had three strains: A/Brisbane/59/2007 (H1N1); A/Brisbane/10/2007 (H3N2); B/Florida/4/2006. 

Source: AFP

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