Wednesday, February 8, 2017

A virus by any other name...

In 2015, the World Health Organization released a set of guidelines: “World Health Organization Best Practices for the Naming of New Human Infectious Diseases.” In partnership with the World Organization for Animal Health and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, they, “aim to minimize unnecessary negative impact of disease names on trade, travel, tourism or animal welfare, and avoid causing offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups.” Further, the guidelines also give the WHO the agency to impose a name onto a disease if they find that a disease has been given an inappropriate name.

Some of the guidelines included:
  • Using generic descriptive terms (such as respiratory disease and watery diarrhea), 
  • Using specific descriptive terms that are plain - Naming the causative agent like “novel coronavirus,” 
  • Names should be short 
  • Names should be acronym-ized, if too long 
These guidelines would limit the sorts of names that diseases could have and shifts towards an increasingly culturally sensitive world. Reminiscent of the HIV-AIDS epidemic, is it’s earlier name – gay-related immune deficiency, which stigmatized a group of people. Further, viruses named after places also seem to have a negative impact on the places they are named after. However, Christian Dorste, a virologist from the University of Boon at Germany states, “You should not take political correctness so far that in the end no one is able to distinguish these diseases.” There is some contention regarding the appropriate naming of diseases.

Gianna Nino-Tapias (’18)

“World Health Organization Best Practices for the Names of New Human Infectious Disease.” May 2015. World Health Organization. Accessed 8 February 2017.

Kupferschmidt, K. “Discovered a disease” WHO has new rules for avoiding offensive names.” 11 May 2015 Web. Science Magazine.

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