On Wednesday, the new disease affecting thousands of people in Mexico and more than 100 in the United States and other countries was called swine influenza. By Thursday, the “S word” had been banned: A sentence in a box at the very top of the home page of the World Health Organization said, “From today, W.H.O. will refer to the new influenza virus as influenza A(H1N1).”
At the organization’s news conference in Geneva on Thursday, its deputy director general, Dr. Keiji Fukuda, dutifully referred to the virus as “H1N1,” slipping only once. Just two days earlier, Dr. Fukuda had declared that the new virus was a swine influenza virus and that the organization had no plans to call it anything other than what it was.
Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have also started to shun the word “swine,” and a hapless reporter who used it during a radio interview was roundly scolded by Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
The name may have changed, but the virus has not. Scientists who have examined its genetic material say that most of it comes from viruses known to infect pigs. But for various reasons, it seems, that is better left unsaid.
“There were some issues regarding the name ‘swine flu’ that were brought to the attention of the scientific community,” said Thomas W. Skinner, a spokesman for the C.D.C. “Sensitive issues in other parts of the world. Among the issues were cultural ones.”
And in the United States, Mr. Skinner said, “I think there were issues around the use of the name and its impact on commerce.”
Fiona Fleck, a spokeswoman for the World Health Organization, said that the virus was originally called swine flu “because the largest component of this new virus was actually swine flu virus.”
But she added: “It doesn’t affect pigs, as far as we know. It hasn’t been found in pigs. Pigs haven’t transmitted it, as far as we know.” She said that the research had not yet been done to confirm that.
More important, Ms. Fleck said, the name “swine flu” has led some people, mistakenly, to become fearful about eating pork, and that has had an adverse impact on the livelihoods of those in the pork industry.
“So the naming is very fraught, of course,” she said. “It’s fairness, and of course we’re a scientific organization. A(H1N1) is a scientific name. That’s it. But the scientific name is not very user friendly. I think it would help all of us if we could find a name that’s easier to say that’s more popular.”
Maybe, she suggested, there could be a competition, and members of the public could come up with a better name.