How WHO names Diseases? -2015 Guidelines

The WHO has named Coronavirus Disease as COVID-19, in line with the WHO 2015 naming guidelines between the global agency, the World Organisation for Animal Health and the Food and Agriculture Organization.

What best practices did the guidelines suggest?

According to the guidelines, name of a new disease should consist of a combination of terms.

These terms consist of a generic descriptive term based on clinical symptoms (respiratory), physiological processes (diarrhoea), and anatomical or pathological references (cardic).

It can refer to specific descriptive terms such as those who are afflicted (infant, juvenile, and maternal), seasonality (summer, winter) and severity (mild, severe).

The name can also include other factual elements such as the environment (ocean, river), causal pathogen (coronavirus) and the year the new disease is first detected with or without mentioning the month.

The year is used when it becomes “necessary to differentiate between similar events that happened in different years”. In the case of COVID-19, coronavirus has caused other diseases such as the Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).

Besides, the WHO has also listed out the terms that should be avoided while naming a new diseasse. This includes, geographic locations, people’s names, species of animal or food, references to culture, population, industry or occupation, and terms that incite undue fear.

Disease names before 2015 that Violate these Guidelines:

There are a few disease names that mentions the geographic location — cities, countries or regions — where the disease was first identified. The Ebola virus disease derives its name from the location from where the virus was first identified — Yambuku in the Democratic Republic of the Congo which is about 100 km from the Ebola River. Likewise, Zika gets its name from the location from where the virus was first identified in rhesus monkeys — Uganda’s Zika forest. Japanese encephalitis (first case documented in 1871 in Japan), Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, Spanish Flu, Rift Valley fever, and Lyme disease are other examples where the disease name carries the location name.

A couple of diseases carry the name of the person who first identified the disease. Chagas disease is named after the Brazilian physician Carlos Chagas, who discovered the disease in 1909.

Some diseases carry the name of animals — bird flu (H5N1) and swine flu (H1N1). The 2009 H1N1 pandemic was commonly referred to as swine flu. It is important to note that the 2009 pandemic virus was not completely derived from swine. The virus contains a combination of flu genes from bird, swine, and human flu types.

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