"The job of the media is to get it right...it’s H1N1,” USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack stated emphatically again last month at yet another news conference on the Novel H1N1 2009 influenza virus. 

That event was followed by a question-and-answer session specifically for the media and included USDA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. The result has not achieved a perfect score, but media outlets finally appear to be transitioning over to the H1N1 nomenclature.

Driving that message home further, National Pork Board President Tim Bierman sent a letter to executives of the 25 major media outlets explaining why it’s critical and accurate to drop the “swine flu” label and call the new influenza virus challenge Novel H1N1.

NPB also has put together a kit to help producers pass the word on to local media and help them understand the facts surrounding Novel H1N1. Also in September, NPB conducted separate Webinars for retailers, dieticians, packers and ag media to inform and answer questions. Taking the media push further, NPB is conducting one-on-one, desk-side conversations with major media outlets.

Not to be overlooked, the National Pork Producers Council, U.S. Meat Export Federation and the American Association of Swine Practitioners are assisting in the effort. In other words, you are not in this alone.

But to deepen that understanding, it’s important that you and your staff know why “swine flu” is not an accurate label. Steve Kappes, with USDA's Agricultural Research Service, points out that the early diagnostic tests picked up on the swine genetic portion of the virus, of which there are two (neither is circulating in U.S. swine). It also contains avian and human genetic material. But the virus was first detected in humans. “It would be more accurate to call it ‘human flu,’” he adds. Scientists call this a quadruple reassortant virus.

Novel H1N1 continues to spread in people and pigs globally. The latest reported swine case comes from Northern Ireland, adding it to the list that includes Canada, Australia and Argentina.

Of course, equal to the desire of keeping Novel H1N1 out of the U.S. swine herd is the concern about how consumers might react to its likely eventual entry. “We don’t know how retailers or consumers would react,” says Chris Novak, NPB’s chief executive director. “But, since the early (human) breaks, we have all learned and communicated much more.”

According to NPB research, 88 percent of pork eaters are confident in the safety of the food supply, while only 2 percent are not, says Ceci Snyder, NPB's vice president of domestic marketing. Specific to Novel H1N1, 3 percent think you can get the virus from pork; 78 percent are sure that you cannot.

But not everyone in the world carries that same perspective. Nearly two-thirds of China’s consumers stopped eating pork in the early days of the H1N1 influenza outbreak, and more than one in five still believe that eating pork can result in catching the flu virus, according to a USMEF survey of 1,200 Chinese.

Joel Haggard, senior vice president Asia-Pacific for USMEF, says that China — the world’s largest pork producer and consumer — may have been more affected by the H1N1 virus outbreak than previously suspected.

Of the 21 percent of Chinese consumers who still believe that eating pork can lead to catching the H1N1 virus, 54 percent of them say it is because the virus has been labeled “swine flu,” Haggard says.

To confirm the reality that pork is safe, Marcus Kehrli, livestock research leader at USDA’s National Animal Disease Center, in Ames, Iowa, and his group have studied influenza viruses in fresh pork.

“We know that influenza virus is a respiratory pathogen. It is not associated with blood; it does not move into other tissues.” In the NADC studies, all non-respiratory tract tissues were negative for influenza virus isolates. Studies looking specifically at meat products confirmed this, as have studies in Germany and England. They “have all found the same things,” Kerhli says.

The take-home message — influenza virus, including Novel H1N1, is limited to respiratory-tract tissues.

So, what might happen if Novel H1N1 infiltrates U.S. hogs? When infected in the laboratory, pigs showed a quick response — within 16 to 18 hours, Kerhli says. “It was typically found in younger pigs. I don’t see it as a concern in market hogs.”  Overall, the test animals’ responses have been mild.

“Laboratories will have the ability to type this virus,” says Patrick Webb, DVM, with NPB. “It will take a couple of days to confirm the virus. They are working on quick tests, but the first cases will take a couple of days. “

Again, people will likely be the carrier into a hog facility. “In the 30-plus years of studying flu, I’ve seen more human introductions into pigs versus the other way around,” Kerhli says.

What’s a producer to do? “You need to limit people into the facility to only those who need to be there; sick people should not be among people or animals,” says John Clifford, deputy administrator for APHIS.

Continue to be vigilant on farms; honor, even sharpen, your biosecurity protocols, says Liz Wagstrom, NPB’s assistant vice president of science and technology. Check out “Plan now for Flu Season” (June issue of Pork) and NPB’s biosecurity protocols; both can be found at porkmag.com/health.

“The easiest things to do are wash your hands, and wear gloves and farm-specific clothes,” she says. “If someone is ill, stay home; if you must come in to work, use a two-strap, N95 dust mask and goggles.”

How do you know if someone is ill? According to CDC, Novel H1N1 influenza virus infection in humans can produce a wide range of symptoms, including fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue. Then again, some people can be infected without producing many or any symptoms.

From an industry crisis-management standpoint, being able to communicate quickly with pork producers remains a key component. “The one thing that would help greatly is if pork producers would give us (NPB) their e-mail addresses, which we would only use in a crisis situation like this,” says Cindy Cunningham, NPB’s communications vice president. “Then we can immediately reach them with the information they need.”

To share your e-mail address for this purpose, call (800) 456-7675, or e-mail pork@pork.org.

Editor’s note: There is no shortage of guidance and insight available to pork producers, related to the Novel H1N1 influenza virus. Go to porkmag.com/health, and you will find the connections you need.