It’s hard to give something a name, whether that's a baby, a pet or a disease you've discovered. And now the World Health Organization is urging both doctors and members of the media to think hard about how they label diseases, and to avoid some common names like “swine flu” and “Middle East respiratory syndrome” that could unintentionally harm some communities through association.
Diseases are often given common names when they are first reported to the media, and early ones tend to stick. While this might seem obvious, what a disease is called matters most to the people (or animals) who are directly affected, says Dr. Keiji Fukuda, Assistant Director-General for Health Security at the WHO in a press release:
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 livelihoods.
The WHO now says in naming new diseases doctors should stick to the symptoms. The new guidelines specify avoiding names that include geographic locations, people’s names, animal species and cultural or occupational references, to name a few. The WHO also recommends avoiding “terms that incite undue fear” such as “unknown,” “epidemic” and “fatal.”
It's not that disease names are unchangeable once they stick — the word “hemmorhagic” disappeared from early coverage of the Ebola virus after doctors found that it wasn’t a common symptom, writes Carina Storrs for CNN. But naming a disease accurately without sensationalizing it could be tricky. While Dr. Robert Bristow, medical director of emergency management at New York Presbyterian Hospital, thinks the new guidelines are a good step forward, he says doctors need to strike a balance between accurately naming a new disease and not overloading the public with technical terms. Storrs writes:
The WHO suggests that dubbing a disease should involve mention of the symptoms associated with that disease, and, if appropriate, the pathogen (such as the virus or bacteria) responsible for the disease and the season associated with it.
One example? Swine flu could go by A(H1N1)pdm09, a name the WHO put forth in 2009.
Bristow thinks this might be too much information. Just "new flu" could be enough, along with something such as "highly transmissible" to indicate that it is not your ordinary seasonal flu.
While the new naming conventions won’t replace the International Classification of Diseases system, the WHO says they will provide guidance for naming future diseases.