WHO Develops Best Management Practices for Naming Human Infectious Diseases

The World Health Organization (WHO) is asking for consideration from individuals and groups who might be involved in naming human infectious diseases in the future, a change no doubt warmly welcomed by the agriculture industry, which has largely avoided the use of terms like “mad cow disease,” and “swine flu.”

“In recent years, several new human infectious diseases have emerged,”said Dr Keiji Fukuda, Assistant Director-General for Health Security, WHO. “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.”

WHO has advised that from now on, common usage names do not include geographic regions, the names of people, species of animals, food, or industries when naming illnesses. Avoiding words that evoke undue fear, like ‘epidemic,’ ‘unknown’ or fatal is also incredibly important, according to WHO.

“This may seem like a trivial issue to some,” said Fukuda, “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 livelihoods.”

The public and the media is advised to instead use names with generic, descriptive words based on symptoms (e.g. respiratory disease, neurologic syndrome, watery diarrhoea).

These best management practices will not replace the existing International Classification of Diseases (ICD), but will be expected to be used in the time between the news of the disease and the final ICD disease name.

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