Friday, 8 May 2015

WHO issues guidelines for naming new infectious disease

WHO today called on scientists, national authorities and the media to follow best practices in naming new human infectious diseases to minimize unnecessary negative effects on nations, economies and people.

“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,” says Dr Keiji Fukuda, Assistant Director-General for Health Security, WHO. “This may seem like a trivial issue to some, but disease names really do matter to the people who are directly affected. 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. This can have serious consequences for peoples’ lives and livelihoods.”

These guidelines were necessary because once inappropriate disease names are established in common usage through the Internet and social media, they are difficult to change. Therefore, it is important that whoever first reports on a newly identified human disease uses an appropriate name that is scientifically sound and socially acceptable.

The best practices state that a disease name should consist of generic descriptive terms, based on the symptoms that the disease causes (e.g. 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 (e.g. progressive, juvenile, severe, winter). If the pathogen that causes the disease is known, it should be part of the disease name (e.g. coronavirus, influenza virus, salmonella).

The new best practices do not apply to disease names that are already established and will not replace the existing International Classification of Diseases (ICD), but rather provide an interim solution prior to the assignment of a final ICD disease name.

Sounds fair.


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