WHO Offers "Best Practices" for Naming Infectious Diseases

The World Health Organization (WHO) claimed titles like Spanish Flu, monkey pox, and Chagas disease are problematic, and has released guidelines on how to properly name infectious diseases.

The World Health Organization (WHO) claimed titles like Spanish Flu, monkey pox, and Chagas disease are problematic, and has released guidelines on how to properly name infectious diseases.

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

Geographic locations, names, species of animals, cultural and occupational references, and sensationalist/extreme language were other examples of terminology that scientists, national authorities, and the media should avoid when naming emergent conditions.

The WHO wrote that these guidelines are intended to “minimize unnecessary negative impact of disease names on trade, travel, tourism or animal welfare, and avoid causing offence to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups.”

In conjunction with the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), International Classification of Diseases (ICD) experts, the WHO produced a three-page report which recommended ideal methods for naming a disease, including:

  • Specific terms: Age group (juvenile, pediatric, senile, maternal), disease severity, seasonality, environment, and origin
  • Year of detection
  • Generic descriptive terms: respiratory, neurologic, hemorrhagic, Hepatitis, immunodeficiency, palsy, pulmonary, cardiac, gastrointestinal, syndrome, disease, fever,failure
  • Arbitrary identifiers: alpha, beta, a, b, I,II,III, 1,2,3
  • Pathogenic descriptors: coronavirus, salmonella/salmonellosis, influenza virus, parasitic, variant, reassortant subtype, serotype

Despite their push for reform, the WHO mentioned that their recommendations would not overshadow or supersede the existing ICD system put in place. The WHO claimed the guidelines’ purpose is to provide an immediate solution by accurately labelling a disease prior to an ICD designation.

“Given the increasingly rapid and global communication through social media and other electronic means, it is important that an appropriate disease name is assigned by those who first report a new human disease,” the organization wrote. “WHO strongly encourage scientists, national authorities, the national and international media and other stakeholders to follow the best practices set out in this document when naming a human disease.”