A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Swine Flu Fact and Fiction


You can’t spell "pandemic" without "panic," and news about swine flu has put people in a tizzy. As with any tizzy, this has resulted in some misinformation getting mixed in with the real-time updates. We present a few misconceptions about swine flu that we’ve seen or heard in the last few days.

1. You can get swine flu from eating pork.

No more than you can get avian flu from eating birds, human flu from eating humans, or West Nile virus from drinking the West Nile. You catch swine flu the way you catch any flu — by being coughed or sneezed on by an infected person, or by touching something with flu viruses on it and then touching your mouth, nose or eyes. It’s not spread by eating pig products. However, the pork industry reports that people are being confused by the name, and the industry is lobbying to have it changed. (The AP reports that the government is moving toward calling the virus "the H1N1 flu outbreak" — not as catchy, but perhaps more accurate.) Several countries have banned pork imports despite statements from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization saying that swine flu is not transmitted via pork products. In fact, this strain includes genetic material from human and avian flus as well as swine flu, and it’s not certain that humans can catch it from pigs at all.

2. You shouldn’t travel because of the outbreak.

The CDC has recommended that people avoid nonessential travel to Mexico. The U.S. isn’t conducting any screenings on people going to or coming from Mexico, though, and the WHO is not recommending travel restrictions except to people who are already ill.

3. Swine flu is brand new.

This particular strain is new, but we’ve had run-ins with swine flu before. From the CDC Web site: "Between 2005 until January 2009, 12 human cases of swine flu were detected in the U.S. with no deaths occurring. However, swine flu infection can be serious. In September 1988, a previously healthy 32-year-old pregnant woman in Wisconsin was hospitalized for pneumonia after being infected with swine flu and died 8 days later. A swine flu outbreak in Fort Dix, New Jersey occurred in 1976 that caused more than 200 cases with serious illness in several people and one death."

4. Swine flu is unusually deadly or unusually contagious.

We just don’t know. It is known that this flu can be spread from person to person, and the WHO has upgraded the outbreak to pandemic alert phase 5, which means that there’s been proven sustained human-to-human transmission in at least two countries. That also means that WHO suggests that "all countries should immediately activate their pandemic preparedness plans." But we still don’t know how quickly it’s spread, or how deadly it is; the WHO’s phases — including phase 6, the highest level — refer to the human-to-human communicability of an animal-based influenza virus, not to its severity. Only 20 of the suspected swine flu deaths in Mexico have been confirmed by officials (only seven by the WHO), though there were likely many more, and only one death in the U.S. has been confirmed. And as we mentioned before, we can’t posit a firm mortality rate without knowing how many mild cases of swine flu go unnoticed and untreated.

Meanwhile, as CNN points out today, thousands of people have died from regular seasonal influenza this year. The acting director of the CDC said yesterday that he "fully expect[s] we will see deaths from this infection," but that’s typical for an influenza outbreak — seasonal flu is associated with more than 36,000 deaths annually in the U.S. and as many as 500,000 worldwide. What we don’t know yet is whether this flu will spread faster, be deadlier or kill healthier people than a typical influenza strain.

5. Barack Obama was exposed to swine flu.

At the beginning of the swine flu media coverage, reports came out that Obama had shaken hands with a man in Mexico who died of swine flu the following day. In fact, museum director Felipe Solis did not die of swine flu, and Obama is not sick.

6. Swine flu was brought to the United States by illegal immigrants.

There’s no evidence for this, and for practical reasons it’s unlikely — undocumented immigrants don’t usually move freely between the United States and Mexico, and they represent a small part of U.S./Mexico border crossings compared with legal immigrants and travelers. Some incidences of the disease, like the outbreak in New York (currently the largest in the U.S.), have been traced to legal travel. United States residents take hundreds of millions of legal trips to Mexico each year, while the Pew Hispanic Center estimates that roughly 300,000 people entered the U.S. illegally from Mexico between 2005 and 2008.

For more information on swine flu, the CDC has a frequently asked questions page, detailing how to keep from getting sick and what to do if you think you are.