The media buzz surrounding the influenza virus formerly known as swine flu has resulted in an epidemic of both controversy and criticism. Is it overkill? Many think so. But over the past 24 hours, the PR offensive around the flu hasn’t been about prevention or panic…it’s about the virus’s brand. As of yesterday, the World Health Organization, the CDC and others have firmly rejected the swine handle and are insisting that the strain of flu that could possibly reach pandemic proportions be referred to as Influenza H1N1.
The chief reason given for the change is that the references to swine have hurt the pork industry, since people might think they could catch the flu by eating it. It also has particular sensitivities in Muslim and Jewish cultures, among others. This makes partial sense, but there’s another benefit to the name change. It’s more scientific, more serious, and less likely to be the butt of jokes among the press and blogosphere.
With luck, the more dignified Influenza H1N1 will help stop the jokes about the coming “Aporkalypse” or “Hamaggedon.” Yet, today’s report made gave me pause. Fiona Fleck, a WHO spokesperson, admitted that the new name isn’t “user-friendly.” She actually suggested there could be a competition in which members of the public come up with a new name.
A naming contest can be a great idea for, say, a new Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor…but a branding vehicle for a deadly flu epidemic? When pigs fly.