New human diseases should be given socially acceptable names which do not offend people and countries or mention animals, the World Health Organization (WHO) has said. It has produced advice for scientists and the media on choosing names. The WHO says Middle East Respiratory Syndrome and Spanish Flu are examples of what to avoid because they mention specific locations. Instead, names should contain generic terms that are “easy to pronounce”.
The WHO said several new human infectious diseases had emerged in recent years and some had stigmatised certain cultures, regions and economies. Dr Keiji Fukuda, assistant director general for health security at the WHO, said: “This may seem like a trivial issue to come, but disease names really do matter to the people who are directly affected.”
Dr Fukuda said certain disease names had created a backlash against members of particular religious or ethnic communities. They had also put up barriers to travel, commerce and trade, he added, and in some cases triggered the needless slaughtering of animals. “This can have serious consequences for people’s lives and livelihoods.” The WHO has listed a number of best practices for naming new diseases which have not been recognised in humans before.
They include using specific or generic descriptive terms if they are known, such as ‘severe’, ‘progressive’ or ‘respiratory disease’ and making names short and easily pronounceable. Any acronyms for longer names should be checked, the advice adds. Disease names which incite fear, include people’s names, such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, or refer to specific occupations, for example Legionnaires’ disease, should be avoided.