Earlier today, Gregory Härtl of WHO was leading a lively Twitter conversation on the media over-coverage of H1N1 in some countries while other influenza cases were ignored. That got me thinking about a problem we all have with the term "influenza" itself.
After all, we have seasonal flu, influenza-like illness, and the self-diagnosed stomach flu. Then we have swine flu, bird flu, and whatever the long-suffering ferrets call it when they come down with something on the job.
Compounding the nomenclature problem are SARS and MERS, not even from the same viral family as the influenzas but with roughly similar symptoms. Ordinary people, who catch these diseases and pay for their study and control, literally don't know what's hit them, except that it's worse than a cold.
Having spent 40 years in a vain attempt to teach standard English, I know when people are determined not to think clearly about something. Nonetheless, I humbly submit that we relegate the term influenza to the dumpster where terms like phlogiston and orgone ended up.
The CDC points out that "flu" in the US can kill anywhere from 3,000 to 49,000 Americans in a single year. That makes it comparable with American gunshot deaths (about 30,000 a year since at least the 1960s), and therefore a serious public health issue.
But because "flu" is such a vague term, the public shrugs it off just like the gun-death toll; many simply refuse to get their flu shots, thereby ensuring more deaths next year. No one takes it seriously, even the at-risk groups like seniors and pregnant women.
So I humbly suggest that we step discreetly away from casual use of the term "influenza" and refer to cases by the name of the virus causing a particular disease: H1N1, H3N2, etc.
But I don't expect it to happen in this century, if ever.