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What’s in a Name?

May 28, 2009

285722046_3a1aab67b6 Even as the swine flu, swine-origin influenza A virus (S-OIV), H1N1 flu, novel H1N1 influenza A virus, etc., etc. recedes from the public’s eye, I can’t help but thinking about the name.

As my Program Manager continuously complains, none of them is really right, and only the last name  approaches specificity. The disease is a form of two types of swine flu, and avian flu,  and H1N1 human influenza. Furthermore, there are lots of types and sub-types of swine influenza beyond this current franken-strain. So, swine flu, while easily said and remembered, is not right.The S-OIV one is good, but generally incomprehensible to anyone outside of the health care industry–and I’d even get more specific and say public health and infection control practitioner world. While it is possible to teach the public to use acronyms for difficult to say or understand medical terminology (see: HIV/AIDS, SARS, etc.), the term needs to be consistently applied at all levels of media and government communication. Because of push-back from the pork industry, neither name had much chance of gaining hold in official communications. The original name, however, stuck with the public and is probably the best known of the terms (which makes sense, because it was called swine flu while the media focused relentlessly on it, and only changed as the outbreak faded from focus).

The H1N1 influenza doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but it was CDCs next attempt at renaming. I remember the first time I heard it used, by DHS Secretary Napolitano (which might have been a problem, too, as noted by Joel). The problem, besides it’s rather clunky name, is that it’s not the right scientific name. There is lots of H1N1 influenza floating around every year. H1N1 human influenza circulated in some quantity just a few months ago, actually. The name doesn’t specify that the strain is different than the normally prevailing strain, and is hence something to worry  about. The double whammies of being confusing and difficult to say plagues visitors to the CDC website (see: to this day. In an effort to rectify the scientific problem with the name, the CDC added “novel” to the front of it.

Confused yet? Cause the general public isn’t. They’ve moved on and refer to all of the past hoopla as swine flu. Basically, outside of pleasing the pork industry, all of our machinations only served to confuse people and ultimately be found useless.

I think there’s a huge risk/crisis communication lesson to be learned here. You have a disaster–let’s say it’s a pandemic strain of influenza, or a mine exploded, or a huge fire. To some extent, the disaster will dictate what people call it (Sago Mine disaster, 9/11, etc.), but there is a chance that as communication responders, we can control the most lasting impression of the disaster. Consider the Sago Mine disaster. According to Wikipedia, the last mine disaster to occur before Sago in the United States was the Jim Walters Resources Mine disaster. Now, which of the two mining companies involved in these disasters would you rather have been working for? Exactly.

Now  obviously, hindsight is 20/20, so it’s easy to say that we should have been more cognizant about what we said to the media and online, but I think that this is an important thing to consider moving forward. You have a disaster, and as the public information officer, one of the first things you need to think about is–what should we call it? Will the name be rejected by constituents? Is it easy to say and remember? Will the name reflect poorly on the response or company (think about Legionnaire’s disease)?

Sorry folks, I know it’s something else of “critical importance” to think about, but it really is something of critical importance.

Photo credit: orebokech


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