What’s in a Name: Consequences of Haphazard Disease Naming

In 2009, Egypt wiped out its entire pig population in response to the fear of swine flu alone, as the disease hadn’t affected anyone in the country yet. In the following months after the major ecosystem disruption evidenced by hazardous trash accumulation in the streets (formerly consumed by the pigs), severe economic consequences, and the newfound presence of swine flu in the country, Egypt acknowledged the misguided move, but the damage was already done.


New York Times | Shawn Baldwin

New York Times | Shawn Baldwin


Another case, which illustrates the lasting effects of such haphazard naming, is the fate of Old Lyme, Connecticut, the namesake of the tick-borne disease, which is still suffering the repercussions of the disease first discovered in children there in the 1970s, as the New York Times explains. The accumulation of various unnecessary misunderstandings with drastic consequences around the world has sparked a new initiative by the World Health Organization to combat unintended negative and often destructive impacts towards populations, communities, and economic sectors.


As of May 8th, the WHO announced a new set of guidelines for naming infectious diseases in light of recent epidemics with strongly stigmatized names. According to Dr. Keiji Fukuda, the assistant director-general for Health Security, WHO, while this may seem like a trivial issue, “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.” Once these names have been spread and sensationalized by the media, it is extremely difficult to undo the damage of a misnomer, let alone change the name.


The previous system for nomenclature—the International Classification of Diseases (ICD)—will remain in place and the new issued practices will serve as an additional set of guidelines. There will be no changes to previously named diseases that violate these rules like Ebola (a river in the Democratic Republic of Congo) or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Disease names are encouraged to include descriptive terms that elucidate characteristics like clinical symptoms, severity or seasonality but discouraged from including factors like geographic origin or industry references. The following table elaborates on the new imposed restrictions:


Disease names may NOT include: Examples:
Geographic locations Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, Spanish Flu, Rift Valley fever, Japanese encephalitis
People’s names Chagas disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease
Species or class of animal or food Swine flu, bird flu, monkey pox, equine encephalitis, paralytic shellfish poisoning
Cultural, population, industry or occupational references Legionnaires, miners, butchers, cooks, nurses
Terms that incite undue fear Unknown, death, fatal, epidemic

© World Health Organization 2015.


While no details have been provided on how these new rules or guidelines will be enforced, this is an important step towards preventing needless confusion, misinterpretations, fear and the dangerous consequences that can follow from poorly named diseases.

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Elizabeth Borowiec

Elizabeth Borowiec is in her third year at Georgetown University, majoring in Biological Physics, and set to matriculate to the Georgetown School of Medicine Class of 2021. When she’s not studying—though sometimes while—she enjoys singing, playing the piano, exploring the nation’s capital and drinking Earl Grey tea.