The Hari Putar Dialogues - 55
(The New York Times ; April 28; Hong Kong: What to call the new strain of flu raising alarms around the world has taken on political, economic and diplomatic overtones. Pork producers question whether the term 'swine flu' is appropriate, given that the new virus has not yet been isolated in samples taken from pigs in Mexico or elsewhere. While the new virus seems to be heavily composed of genetic sequences from swine influenza virus material, it also has human and avian influenza genetic sequences as well, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Government officials in Thailand, one of the world's largest meat exporters, have started referring to the disease as 'Mexican flu'. An Israeli deputy health minister ' an ultra orthodox Jew ' said his country would do the same, to keep Jews from having to say the word 'swine'. His call seemed to have been largely ignored.)
Putar: There is a report in The New York Times today that pork producers are questioning whether the name 'swine flu' is appropriate for this new virus that is spreading across the world.
Hari: Didn't it originate from pigs?
Putar: The virus has genetic sequences from swine influenza virus, but it also has human and avian influenza genetic sequences.
Hari: What should it be called, according to them?
Putar: Give it any other name, they say.
Hari: This is because if it's called 'swine flu' it affects the sale of pork products.
Putar: Exactly. US officials have rushed to assure people that it's impossible to get pig strains of influenza from food. But by last weekend, China, Russia and Ukraine were banning imports of pork from Mexico and certain US states.
Hari: What are the names that have been proposed?
Putar: Israeli officials have suggested renaming it Mexican flu, saying the reference to pigs is offensive to Muslims and Jewish sensitivities over pork.
Hari: But the Mexicans may not like that name.
Putar: True, but there are precedents. The infamous 1918 pandemic was first called the Spanish flu and there was a flu epidemic in 1967 called the Hong Kong flu. Thailand has already started calling it Mexican flu instead of Swine flu.
Hari: Why have the Thais done that?
Putar: For the same reasons that the pork farmers want the name changed. Thailand is one of the world's largest meat exporters. They export a great deal of pork.
Hari: Mexico has already suffered a lot financially in terms of tourism, and because public places such as restaurants and cinemas are closed. Will it matter to them if it's called 'Mexican flu'?
Putar: I think so. The Mexican ambassador to Beijing, Jorge Guajardo has stated that the disease did not originate in Mexico. An infected person from somewhere in 'Eurasia' brought the disease to his country. According to him American and Canadian experts had told his government that the genetic sequence of the virus pointed to Eurasian origins.
Hari: Eurasia? That means the entire landmass of Asia and Europe.
Putar: True. And of course there are many Eurasians living in Mexico itself, so the ambassador cannot really conclude that it was brought into the country from someone living overseas.
Hari: Any other suggestions for the name of this disease?
Putar: The US Department of Homeland Security has suggested calling it H1N1 flu.
Hari: That's too scientific and boring a name for it to catch on.
Putar: Instead of using a country specific name like Mexico, Spain and Hong Kong, you could use the name of a region. That way individual countries won't be offended.
Hari: Can you give me an example?
Putar: For example there was a flu from 1957 to 1958 that was called the Asian flu. So the World Health Organization has actually suggested that this flu should be labeled 'North American influenza'.
Hari: Well, the United States may not like that.
Putar: When there was the mad cow disease some years ago, everyone said the Hindus were very intelligent, because they don't eat cows.
Hari: And now I suppose they can say that the Muslims and Jews are very intelligent because they don't eat pigs.
Putar: First there was mad cow disease, then avian flu and now swine flu. It seems like the vegetarians are the only intelligent people.
Hari: Also perhaps that the animals on our planet are trying to tell us something.
Hari: Please give us a good environment to live in and take care of us, otherwise you may suffer the consequences. Let's just hope that this doesn't turn out to a major global pandemic.
Putar: Tell me something Papaji?
Hari: Bol, Putar?
Putar: The virus has swine, avian, and human genetic sequences, doesn't it?
Hari: That's what the scientists have concluded. It's also the argument used by pig farmers against calling it swine flu.
Putar: So should we perhaps call it the PMB flu?
Putar: PMB is short for Pig Man Bird flu.
Hari: People will not mind the association with birds, but I don't think many people will like for us to be linked with pigs.
Putar: Is that because obesity problems are surfacing in many Western countries? Or is it because as George Orwell indicated in his book 'Animal Farm' some of us are becoming even greedier than pigs?
Hari: I don't know, Putar.