Guidelines issued by WHO to avoid offensive disease names

Guidelines issued by WHO to avoid offensive disease names

The World
Health Organization tries to establish best practices for disease naming in
order to avoid creating negative stigmas.

Owing to recent anxieties about
creating negative stigmas for people, places, or animals around the world, the
World Health Organization (WHO) has dispensed a series of guidelines for
naming newly discovered infectious diseases. This will mark the first time the
organization has weighed in on the matter. 

“In recent years, several newfangled human infectious
diseases have arisen. The use of names such as ‘swine flu’ and ‘Middle East
Respiratory Syndrome’ has had unintended negative impacts by stigmatizing
certain communities or economic sectors,” said Dr Keiji Fukuda, Assistant
Director-General for Health Security at the WHO in a statement.
 “This may seem like a
trivial issue to some, but disease names really do matter to the people who are
directly affected. We’ve seen certain disease names provoke a backlash against
members of particular religious or ethnic communities, create unjustified
barriers to travel, commerce and trade, and trigger needless slaughtering of
food animals. This can have serious consequences for peoples’ lives and
In its place, the WHO heartens the originators
of new threats to the human race to be termed with generic descriptions “based
on the symptoms that the disease causes (e.g. respiratory disease, neurologic
syndrome, watery diarrhea) … how the disease manifests, who it affects, its
severity or seasonality (e.g. progressive, juvenile, severe, winter). If the
pathogen that causes the disease is known, it should be part of the disease
name (e.g. coronavirus, influenza virus, salmonella).”
The massacre mentioned to, is when
Egypt, in an attempt to save its citizens from swine flu which it mistakenly
believed was spread by pigs, wiped out the country’s entire population of pigs. 
The newly issued best practices state that new disease names
should avoid including “geographic locations (e.g. Middle East Respiratory
Syndrome, Spanish Flu, Rift Valley fever), people’s names (e.g.
Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, Chagas disease), species of animal or food (e.g.
swine flu, bird flu, monkey pox), cultural, population, industry or
occupational references (e.g. legionnaires), and terms that incite undue fear
(e.g. unknown, fatal, epidemic).”

While the move has good intentions, it will be tricky to impose- especially
in the era of social media. Scientist rarely get a chance to determine the
popular moniker of a disease. Rather, people outside the scientific community
who first encounter the illness or who first report on it generally
decide what to call it.

For this reason, the WHO stresses that whoever finds the new disease should
call it something inoffensive from the start.