The World Health Organization Wants You To Quit It With Catchy Nicknames Like ‘Mad Cow Disease’ and ‘Swine Flu’

KS HealthThe World Health Organization is so fed up with us giving infections, syndromes, and various diseases catchy nicknames, that they have made an official request.

WHO says NO!
Not Acceptable: Swine Flu, Monkey Pox, Mad Cow Disease, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, Spanish Flu, Bird Flu, West Nile Virus, Lou Gehrig’s disease, etc.

WHO posted the following ‘note for the media‘ on their website:

 WHO 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.

The concern is that diseases are often given common names by people who work outside of the scientific community, and once these names are established on the Internet and in print, they are very hard to change. So, WHO argues that it is important that whoever FIRST reports on a newly identified human disease uses a ‘scientifically sound’ and ‘socially acceptable’ name.

“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.

Dr Fukuda went on to explain that, while this may sound trivial to some people, disease names can have serious consequences for those directly affected. We have experienced certain backlash against members of religious or ethnic communities, and witnessed unjustified barriers to travel, commerce, and trade. Worst of all, some of these names have triggered the needless slaughter of food animals 😦

If you need an example of how WHO thinks new human diseases should be handled you can look to the Swine flu epidemic in 2009, which WHO asked we call A(H1N1)pdm09.

So, what does WHO consider to be ‘inappropriate’?


Terms that should be avoided in disease names include geographic locations (e.g. Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, Spanish Flu, Rift Valley fever), people’s names (e.g. Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, Chagas disease), species of animal or food (e.g. swine flu, bird flu, monkey pox), cultural, population, industry or occupational references (e.g. legionnaires), and terms that incite undue fear (e.g. unknown, fatal, epidemic).

Interesting Fact: The final name of any new human disease is assigned by the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), which is managed by WHO. Doctors, nurses, researchers, coders, policymakers, insurers, and patient organizations around the world use the ICD to classify diseases in a standardized way.

As a member of the media, and a lover of the science/tech/health community, I see both sides of this issue. But, I don’t see this plea having much of an impact on publications that push eye-catching, SEO driven, headlines. That being said, I will try to use WHO approved disease names moving forward! 😉

The World Health Organization Wants You To Quit It With Catchy Nicknames Like ‘Mad Cow Disease’ and ‘Swine Flu’

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