(CNSNews.com) – Despite efforts by the meat industry, and assurances by international health authorities, the escalating new hybrid H1N1 flu strain continues to be associated with pigs – through the “swine flu” tag – to the concern of pork producers worldwide.
But the U.N. World Health Organization, while stressing again that the eating of well-cooked pork and pork products is safe, has no plans to stop calling the outbreak “swine flu.”
“We don’t have any plans to try to introduce any new names for this disease,” WHO assistant director-general for health security Dr. Keiji Fukuda said during a conference call Tuesday.
As of Wednesday, cases had been confirmed in Mexico, where the virus first emerged, and in the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, Israel, Costa Rica, Britain, Germany and Spain. Suspected but unconfirmed cases are reported in around 20 more countries in Europe, Asia and Latin America. In Mexico, 159 deaths had been attributed to the strain; no deaths have been reported elsewhere.
Experts say the virus is a never-seen-before mix of flu strains endemic in birds, pigs and humans, and that transmission so far has been human-to-human. There is no evidence that infected people have caught it from pigs, according to the WHO and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
Another U.N. agency, the Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organization, cited that lack of evidence Tuesday, but said it was sending animal health experts to Mexico to investigate speculation about a link to industrial pig farms there.
Meat industry bodies in the U.S. and Brazil, both major pork exporters, are pressing for alternative names for the strain, saying the swine tag is hurting business. Russia, which usually accounts for more than 10 percent of global pork imports, is one of several countries to have suspended imports from Mexico and parts of the U.S.
Pork producers have drawn support in their appeals from the Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health, which wants the strain to be labeled “North American flu,” and from U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
But their campaign is not being helped by statements in some Arab countries, where officials are drawing links between the illness and pigs, while emphasizing the fact that consuming pork is prohibited in Islam.
The Egyptian parliament wants all pigs in the country – where they cater largely to the non-Muslim minority – to be slaughtered. Egypt already is on edge because of a surge in cases of unrelated bird flu, which last week claimed a 26th fatality.
Lawmakers in Bahrain are hoping to use the scare to strengthen their bid to have all pork and pork products outlawed. Bahraini lawmakers are pressing for a measure that would make the import, sale or possession of pork a criminal offense.
“The outbreak of this flu, which has killed dozens, will make our case stronger to outlaw pork from the kingdom,” lawmaker Sheikh Adel Al-Moawada, who heads the parliamentary foreign affairs and security committee, was quoted by local media as saying.
In Kuwait, a top health figure also cited the Islamic prohibition in saying that the country’s “pig-free” status would probably afford it some protection.
“We are unlikely to have an outbreak since we don’t have pig farms here. We don’t have pig products and [the region where the strain emerged] is miles away from Kuwait,” said Dr. Khalid Al-Hasawi, deputy director-general of Kuwait’s Infectious Disease Hospital.
A similar view came from the government, with Undersecretary of Health Ibrahim Abdul Hadi saying that as Kuwait did not import pork in any form, it was safe.
Still, international airports in the Gulf, including the major hub at Dubai, are taking precautions, and Gulf States’ health ministers are to meet next week to discuss the issue.
In Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, city authorities ordered the removal of all pork products from store shelves and restaurant menus, local media reported.
According to al-Bawaba, a pan-Arabic news organization, the question of pork consumption and the flu outbreak has stoked debate on Internet forums across the Arab world, with many Middle East Muslims “certain they are safe and immune from the new strain.”
No suspected H1N1 cases have yet been reported in Arab countries, although Israeli authorities have confirmed two cases, in two Israeli men who recently returned from Mexico.
Consumption of pork products is also prohibited in Judaism. Israel’s deputy health minister this week suggested that the new strain be labeled “Mexican flu” rather than swine flu.
In Mexico, as elsewhere in the Spanish-speaking world, government and media are using the terms “gripe porcina” and “influenza porcina.”