Scientists should avoid using geographic locations, people’s names and any cultural references while naming diseases in order to prevent stigmatizing communities and damaging economies, the World Health Organization (WHO) said in a statement released Friday.
“In recent years, several new human infectious diseases have emerged. The use of names such as ‘swine flu’ and ‘Middle East Respiratory Syndrome [MERS]’ has had unintended negative impacts by stigmatizing certain communities or economic sectors,” Keiji Fukuda, assistant director-general for health security at WHO said in the statement. The United Nations agency also issued guidelines for naming new human infectious diseases to minimize such negative impact.
So, for instance, disease names that make cultural or occupational references, and include words like “unknown,” “fatal” or “epidemic” -- likely to incite fear and panic -- should be avoided. The same holds true for those names that mention geographic locations such as MERS and Spanish Flu; people’s names like Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and Chagas disease; and animals in names such as swine flu, bird flu and monkey pox.
“This may seem like a trivial issue to some, but disease names really do matter to the people who are directly affected,” Fukuda said in the statement. “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.”
Moreover, WHO warned, once disease names are established in common usage through the Internet and social media, they can be almost impossible to change, even if an inappropriate name is being used. For example, although studies later proved that the 2009 H1N1 virus was very different from the one that normally infects pigs, the name “swine flu” stuck in common parlance, adversely affecting the business of several hog farmers and pork producers.
The new WHO guidelines state that the disease name should consist of generic descriptive terms based on the relevant symptoms and include specific descriptions like progressive, juvenile or severe when it becomes clear how the disease manifests. If the disease causing pathogen is known, it should be used as part of the name.
“Given that long names are likely to be shortened into an acronym, potential acronyms should be evaluated to ensure they also comply with these best practices,” the advice adds.