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Name diseases but with care, says WHO

mumbai Updated: May 09, 2015 17:30 IST
Shobhan Singh
Shobhan Singh
Hindustan Times
World Health Organization


In 2011, when medical journal, The Lancet, named the superbug Metallo Beta Lactamase-I as New Delhi Metallo Betallo Beta Lactamase (NMD-1), India registered a strong protest that resulted in Dr Richard Horton, the then editor of the medical journal, apologising for “stigmatising” the city and the country.

On Friday, the World Health Organization (WHO) called on scientists, national authorities and the media to follow best practices in naming new human infectious diseases to minimise unnecessary negative effects on nations, economies and people. It has also issued guidelines for naming human 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 as it stigmatised certain communities or economic sectors,” said Dr Keiji Fukuda, assistant director-general for health security, WHO.

“The ‘NDM’ superbug had been described long ago before any patients were found in New Delhi. So, it is only fair that better caution be practised while naming a disease,” said Dr Om Srivastava, infectious diseases expert.

“This may seem like a trivial issue to some, but diseases’ names matter to the people or places which are directly affected,” said Dr Fukuda.

“We have seen certain names of diseases provoke a backlash against members of a particular religious or ethnic community, create unjustified barriers to travel, commerce and trade, and trigger needless slaughtering of animals. This can have serious effects on peoples’ livelihoods,” he added.

Guidelines suggested by the World Health Organization:
* A disease name should consist of generic descriptive terms, based on the symptoms that particular disease causes – such as, respiratory disease, neurologic syndrome, watery diarrhoea – and more specific descriptive terms when robust information is available on how the disease manifests, who it affects, its severity or seasonality – which could be progressive, juvenile, severe, winter

* If the pathogen that causes the disease is known, it should be part of the particular disease’s name. Instances of such names include: coronavirus, influenza virus and salmonella

Terms that should be avoided in disease names include:
* Geographic locations such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, Spanish Flu, Rift Valley fever

* People’s names such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, Chagas disease

* Names of animal species such as swine flu, bird flu, monkey pox

* Cultural, population, industry or occupational references such as legionnaires

* Terms which incite undue fear such as unknown, fatal, epidemic