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:
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.