New names for old

In yesterday’s NYT (and in many other news sources) we learn of an admonishment from the World Health Organization (in “W.H.O. Urges More Care in Naming Diseases” by Rick Gladstone) to avoid animal names, place names, people’s names, and names of groups or organizations in naming diseases — earnest advice that’s going to be hard to follow, since it seems to lead to names that are either short but opaque or cumbersomely long though informative.

The piece begins:

No more animal names like swine flu, monkeypox and mad cow. Avoid place names like Spanish flu, Rift Valley fever, West Nile virus, Lyme disease and Ebola (a river in the Democratic Republic of Congo).

Do not use people’s names like Chagas, Creutzfeldt-Jakob, Alzheimer and Lou Gehrig. And infectious maladies named after groups or occupations — Legionnaires’ disease and butcher’s wart — henceforth are out.

Concerned about the inaccuracies and stigmas that names of illnesses can confer upon people, animals, regions and economies, the World Health Organization on Friday announced “best practices” for naming new human infectious diseases. It called on “scientists, national authorities and the media” to heed the recommendations.

Under the W.H.O.’s guidance, a disease name should consist of a generic descriptive term based on symptoms (respiratory disease, watery diarrhea), who is afflicted (infant, juvenile, maternal), seasonality (summer, winter) and severity (mild, severe). The name can also include other factual elements like the environment (swamp, desert) and the year and month detected.

That’s going to give us long but informative names. The story continues hwith the rationale for the advice:

Dr. Keiji Fukuda, the W.H.O.’s assistant director general for health security, said in the announcement that the recommendations were necessary because of the emergence of diseases that can create “unintended negative impacts by stigmatizing certain communities or economic sectors.”

He cited as examples swine flu, which many people falsely feared was spread by pigs, and Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, which may have originated in the Middle East but has spread around the world.

The changes could lead to cumbersome new names that defy easy shorthand or headline writing.

In an inkling of what a new name could look like, the W.H.O. sought in 2011 to standardize the terminology for the virus responsible for the 2009 swine flu pandemic, calling it A(H1N1)pdm09.

That’s not going to win any prizes. In any case, it’s not a label meant for ordinary speakers; it’s a technical label meant for specialists.

And the long designations look like attempts to make labels serve as definitions, which is (in general) a lost cause.

None of this is of any help to people who would like to devise names that are useful and memorable, without stigmatizing people, places, or animals.

One Response to “New names for old”

  1. Kristin Bergen Says:

    i’m surprised there’s no mention of GRID. this is especially interesting to me because i assigned two essays this semester: one on naming practices in the history of cancer research and GRID/AIDS (based on a passage from the fascinating “Empire of Maladies”), and another about the “Ebola” virus. the second one was really meant to get them to think about virus mutation and signifier/signified, but the first thing the students pointed out in our discussion was the potentially racist consequences of calling it Ebola. thanks for posting this, Arnold.

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