What's in a name? WHO's new guidelines for naming diseases

Groups calls for more sensitivity when naming new illnesses

The World Health Organization (WHO) last week issued new recommendations on how to name newly identified diseases, urging against the use of animal, cultural, or regional references.

According to CNN's Carina Storrs, the new naming practices were crafted to prevent the name of diseases from negatively affecting the "public psyche." For instance, an outbreak of mad cow disease that spread through northern England in 2001 struck "fear in the hearts of beef eaters and tourists." Officials had to plead with visitors to return to the region.

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The new guidelines state that scientists and the public should not refer to disease using:

  • Animal species (i.e. Avian flu);
  • Foods;
  • Cultural or professional references;
  • Regional references (i.e. West Nile virus); or
  • Personal references (i.e. Alzheimer's or Lou Gehrig's disease).

Instead, the organization recommends naming the newly discovered disease after the:

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How do you name a virus?
  • Symptoms;
  • Virus or bacteria responsible for the disease; or
  • Season in which is it most prevalent.

Robert Bristow, the medical director of emergency management at New York Presbyterian Hospital, says, "I completely agree with the WHO in terms of eliminating [these] references. You don't want people to be scared of birds or cows or traveling to a part of the world where there was a case or two."

In 2009, WHO recommended changing the name of swine flu to A(H1N1)pdm09, but Bristow suggests something simpler like "new flu" and a denotation that it is "highly transmissible" could be substantial enough to differentiate it from the seasonal flu without scaring people.

But critics say including just the symptoms of certain diseases in the name could also present problems. For instance, renaming "mad cow disease" to "mad disease" likely would be disturbing to some individuals. 

According to Storrs, scientists and local officials will be responsible for determining the names of new diseases and outbreaks and should take care to ensure the name is responsible and accurate (Storrs, CNN, 5/11; Gladstone, New York Times, 5/8; Batha, Reuters, 5/8).

The takeaway: WHO recently announced new protocols for naming diseases in order to reduce negative connotations associated with certain ailments.


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