WHO’s afraid of flu? BBC says dolphins emit chi
Jan 10
Posted by: nicholasswetenham

Does it matter what swine flu is called?

The 2009 outbreak of non-seasonal influenza, which is classified as  A(H1N1) according to its type of core protein and surface antigens, has popularly been referred to as ’swine flu’ throughout the English-speaking world, and equivalent phrases in other languages – for example la grippe porcine in French.

In some countries, however, governments chose not to refer to the new influenza virus by this name in official publications, presumably because it was felt that the association with pigs was unhelpful to the average person since the transmission is not pig-to-human but human-to-human. In France, bizarrely, it has come to be know as la grippe A for short. To virologists, this merely muddles the issue because most normal seasonal influenza deaths are caused by what they term ‘influenza A’, which in simple terms is a family of flu viruses.

Then, I came across this interview in Le Monde with anthropologist Frédéric Keck of the CNRS, discussing France’s particularly low uptake of swine flu vaccination (<10% of the population). I thought I would summarise it in English for your reading pleasure.

Mr. Keck suggests that in addition to swine flu’s low virulence, a number of local factors explain poor uptake. He mentions ‘playing the precaution card’ which perhaps requires a bit of explanation. In France, health and safety measures and other risk aversion measures are often ascribed to the principe de précaution. This is just a fancy way of saying ‘better safe than sorry’. So perhaps that the public are wary of this overused phrase.

Secondly, he suggests that the act of changing the official name to A(H1N1) made the virus seems less alien and new by removing the reference to its animal origin, more like an ordinary flu virus. At the same time, the national communication campaigns stopped reminding people that it was a new virus about which little was known.

Finally, unlike flu vaccinations in the UK which are co-ordinated through GPs, family doctors in France (who are not as central to healthcare as UK GPs in any case) were not involved in the program.

For interest, let us furhter compare UK and French posters which I cam across this winter:

NHS Swine Flu Poster

Catch it, Bin it, Kill it

Les gestes simples

The UK approach is to have a dedicated telephone line about flu so that other medical enquires are not drowned out. The Catch it-Bin it-Kill it phrase has entered the household in the UK. By comparison, the French poster on the right appears to be a far less effective piece of communication. Small writing and long sentences, for a start. The advice reads “Wash your hand several times a day (with soap or a hydro-alcoholic solution) When you sneeze or cough, cover your hand and nose with your sleeve (or a single use tissue) In case of flu-like symptoms, call your primary care physician (Only call 15 in emergencies)”. The information conveyed covers largely the same topics, but I think here the UK posters (although there’s two of them) put it across far more quickly  and effectively.

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16 Responses to “A swine by any other name”

  1. Michiel Says:

    Hello Nicholas,

    Sorry for asking it this way, but do you know how I get in contact with Collin? I’m a collegue of him from the GSH in Frankfurt and he has the right of some refunds for the journey to Hannover. The problem is that he has closed his German bank account and that we dont have any other bank detials of him.

    Kind regards,

    Michiel van Hees

  2. colinhockings Says:

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  4. Jess Says:

    The French are a funny bunch when it comes to la grippe A. Back in late summer early autumn I know people became a bit overcautious, refusing to do the bisous or shake hands. Then the alcohol gels started cropping up all over the place. So while I see your point about the campaign being a bit lacklustre, that’s not to say the message didn’t get across. Also bear in mind that the French don’t particularly like being told what to do, especially by their government.

    However, I also have the feeling (and this maybe down to the fact that i was exposed to it so much) that there was a rather viral (excuse the pun) and vocal anti-vax movement, which wasn’t helped by a few irresponsible news articles criticising politicians over the vax campaign. Of course this is just a personal observation so I don’t know how accurate it is on a wider scale.

    Also, quick note, Le Monde requires a subscription to view some articles, like the one in your post, so can’t be viewed.

  5. nicholasswetenham Says:

    Thanks for your comments. I think the main aim of my post was to raise the question of why the vaccine was even less effectively distributed in France than other countries

    Le Monde only requires free registration to view articles, not paid subscription.

  6. Harry Says:

    “Use your sleeve as a handkerchief” — yes, very hygienic I’m sure.

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