The World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) has issued a statement lamenting the misnomer on an emerging disease that originated from “a virus circulating in Mexico and the USA and involving person to person transmission.” In a statement, OIE clarified that the there is no evidence to link the cases of influenza in the USA, Mexico and other countries to possible animal cases such as swine. It said that they have not yet isolated the virus in animals.
The OIE said that it was unjustified to call the circulating disease as Swine Influenza or Swine Flu with the absence of its link to pigs. It suggested that the new disease be named as “North-American influenza.”
Some scientists also backed OIEs claim with one article calling to a stop on blaming pigs and “blame simple biology” for the disease mutation.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has since corrected its reference to the disease and now calls it Influenza A (H1N1). While the media has yet to pick-up on the correction, it is slowly referring to the disease as just H1N1 in most of its headlines. The US Center for Disease Control now refers to the disease as H1N1 but does not drop swine flu as another name for the disease. The confirmed cases of Influenza A/H1N1 were recently raised to 615 in 15 countries according to a WHO update.
The OIE and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) are monitoring the influenza A/H1N1 situation with FAO sending technical experts to affected areas to investigate if the influenza has some links with the swine population. Scientists admitted that they are struggling to understand this latest mutation of influenza.
This situation has shown that international crises such as SARS, bird flu (H5N1) and influenza A/H1N1 have yet to be coordinated smoothly among international organizations. It has shown some flaws in the international cooperation framework that the UN agencies agreed to abide to. Although these agreements become formal during specific crisis they have previously agreed to exchange information and coordinate actions. This influenza showed that there was no information exchange and panic immediately prevailed.
As a former communications officer for an organization involved in the bird flu (H5N1) outbreaks, I have witnessed how scientist struggled to understand the disease. This has given so much pressure for most communications officers in the Region as they were asked to produce an immediate message regarding prevailing risk behaviors that might promote the spread of bird flu.
Most of the communication messages that were produced dealt on risk behavior relevant to human influenza and not on the source of the disease during that time–avian species. While the behavior change campaigns remain relevant for pandemic preparation, it did not address the continued spread among animals thus putting farmers at risk.
I guess for the zealous scientists (and PR and communications specialists) during the bird flu outbreaks, the pandemic that they’ve been waiting for has finally arrived. The WHO has warned that measures previously implemented for other diseases such as SARS has no effect to the current influenza outbreak (but only to the economy).
However, there’s always the silver lining as WHO Director-General Margaret Chan always claim “the world is better prepared for an influenza pandemic than at any time in history.”