What’s in a (disease) name?

As communications practitioners we need to keep in mind the language we use should not be disrespectful or offensive to individuals or cultures when describing people, situations and places. Well, this political correctness is now being applied to the description of illnesses and disease conditions too.

By Maria David

As communications practitioners we need to keep in mind the language we use should not be disrespectful or offensive to individuals or cultures when describing people, situations and places.

Well, this political correctness is now being applied to the description of illnesses and disease conditions too.

Recently, the World Health Organisation made recommendations to scientists, national authorities and the media on the naming of new diseases. The aim was to avoid words that could cause offence to people, places or animals (!), or have negative effects on nations and economies.

So illnesses such as swine flu, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, Spanish flu, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, Stevens -Johnson Syndrome or legionnaires disease should no longer be used.

Instead, recommended best practice is to name diseases using a new system – starting with the symptoms that the disease causes (e.g. respiratory disease, neurologic syndrome, watery diarrhoea); then use a term that describes how/when/who it affects (e.g. progressive, juvenile, severe, winter); then name the disease causing organism, if known (e.g. coronavirus, influenza virus, salmonella).  

So for instance, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome would be known as novel betacoronavirus clade C, type 1. This would probably be a relief to tourism offices in the various countries in this area, especially given that the latest epidemic of this disease has been found in South Korea.

The recent pandemic in West Africa would now be known as filovirus-associated haemorrhagic fever 2, rather than the nearby river it was named after, Ebola. However, this should not be confused with filovrus-associated haemorrhagic fever 1, also known as Marburg disease named after a city in Germany! Er…my mind is boggling already and I’ve got a twisted tongue!

Is it really wrong or offensive to name a disease after where it originally began? Some scientists believe that this gives them insights which help research the origin of diseases.    

Naturally, like with any attempt to update terminology that may be deemed politically incorrect there has been opposition from a sizeable number of detractors. This recommendation has been dismissed as at best, a laughing stock initiative, and at worst, a complete waste of resources that causes confusion. Shouldn’t the WHO be interested in more pressing matters like fighting the world’s most deadly diseases?

But hey, the name game needs to be addressed at some point, and maybe now is as good a time as any. Hendra, a town near Brisbane, Australia felt its reputation was damaged significantly when a virus and disease were named after it even though the place had no link to the illness.

Thousands of pigs were unnecessarily slaughtered in 2009 at the time of the swine flu pandemic even though the poor animals had no connection to the outbreak. 

Interestingly, when you look at old medical records and death certificates from the past, the terms used back then to describe disease names were laughable, even sometimes plain offensive:

Old name

Modern name

Bronze John/American plague/Stranger’s fever

Yellow fever

French pox

Syphilis

King’s evil

Tuberculosis of the neck/lymph glands

Mongolism

Down’s syndrome

Brain fever

Meningitis

Canine madness

Rabies

Barber’s itch/Scrumpox

Impetigo

Cowpox

Mild smallpox

Decrepitude

Old age

Elephantiasis

Lymphatic filariasis

Green sickness

Anaemia

GRID

AIDS

Oriental boil

Leishmaniasis/ulcerative lesions

Potter’s asthma

Tuberculosis

English sickness

Rickets

Scrivener’s palsy

Writer’s cramp

Black dog/domestic malady

Depression

Jail fever/ship fever

Typhus

 

So just as we moved forward from using these outdated terms to describe ailments, while laughing at Jim Davidson jokes, maybe it is time again to have a mini nomenclature revolution – hopefully with names that are easier on the tongue than the scientific mouthful that the WHO is proposing.

After all, we have made changes to the way we describe people’s ethnicity or sexual orientation, so why not do it with disease names!

For those who still want to cling nostalgically to the old names they know and love, don’t worry – like with all things bureaucratic the wheels of change are likely to be slow, and the change will only apply to new diseases, so we are unlikely to notice many name changes for a few years.  

H+K Admin

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