Judging from news stories and conversations across the nation, the term “H1N1” isn’t as contagious as the virus itself. Most people still use “swine flu” to refer to the current flu pandemic. The problem is that there already is another type of influenza that is actually called swine flu and it’s totally different.
Confused? Let’s try to clear things up.
The real swine flu is a respiratory illness caused by type A influenza virus that regularly causes flu outbreaks in pigs. The important thing to note is that swine flu viruses don’t normally infect humans. Every once in a while a person that is in close contact with pigs will get infected, but these cases are very rare. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention , there were only 12 cases of that kind of flu in the United States between December 2005 and February 2009.
This spring, when people first began getting sick with a new flu virus, scientists called it “swine flu” because tests showed that many of the genes in this new virus were very similar to swine flu viruses. But after they did more research, they found out that actually this new virus is very different from what normally circulates in North American pigs. It has swine flu genes, bird (avian) genes and human genes. So to signify that it was a new virus, the official name became “novel H1N1 virus” and this is the pandemic we’re currently facing around the world.
But don’t worry if you still think “swine flu” rolls off the tongue easier than “H1N1” – even some health officials still have a hard time remembering what to call it. But it’s good to know the difference!