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WHO Announces New Guidelines For Naming Human Diseases

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The history of disease is filled with evocative names - swine flu, legionnaires' disease, Lou Gehrig's - and the World Health Organization doesn't like that. The WHO just released a new set of guidelines for naming illnesses, like, say, Ebola named for a river in the Congolese jungle, in favor of more generic descriptions. Dr. Keiji Fukuda is the assistant director for health security at the WHO. He joins us from their headquarters in Geneva. Dr. Fukuda, welcome to the program.

KEIJI FUKUDA: Thank you.

CORNISH: So how have human diseases historically gotten their names? I mean, is it basically random?

FUKUDA: Well, there's a couple of different ways in which these diseases are named. You know, we have official systems for naming diseases, but the names that we often use and often seen describing diseases really comes about in a more random way. For example, a scientist who discovers something or a clinician who sees the first case of something or perhaps a news report comes up with a catchy name and then that name takes. And it really becomes the name which most people use to describe that disease.

CORNISH: So give us an example - a disease or virus where the name caused problems because of the stigma and beyond that?

FUKUDA: Well, I think one of the best examples occurred a few years ago. In 2009, we had a new influenza virus appear. It actually appeared in North America first, but the name which stuck is swine flu. And because of that name, one of the things that it resulted in is that in Egypt, in essence, all of the pigs were killed because they thought that was the cause of the disease. And this led to an unnecessary slaughter of those animals. But it also harmed the communities of people that were raising them, and it took away a food source and an economic source. And it's a good example of what can happen.

CORNISH: So the WHO is trying to, I guess, counter this, right, this kind of more ad hoc naming and framing of diseases. And you're looking at a different set of factors, right? Like, who suffers from the disease, symptoms, seasonality. Do you have an example of a name built from that structure?

FUKUDA: Sure. I think that if we look at another disease which emerged about a decade ago, we have the severe acute respiratory syndrome or SARS virus. And so this is both factual - the disease, for most people with severe, it affected the respiratory system and it avoided stigmatizing any place or any person. And then because of the acronym SARS, it also gave media and everybody an easy way to refer to the disease.

CORNISH: Don't the wilder names have some value, helping people to remember them, helping to raise awareness? One example - ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease, right, named after the Yankee first baseman.

FUKUDA: Even in that example, you know, we now live in an era where probably very few people are going to know who Lou Gehrig is. And in many instances, when you name a disease after a place or person it has the opposite effect.

CORNISH: What's your response to the criticism that this is an exercise in political correctness?

FUKUDA: My response would be pretty simple. When you look at how people in communities really get significantly harmed by new diseases and outbreaks, it's not just the people who get infected and who die from it. The economic impact can really hurt people. You can take away food supplies. You can make it very difficult for countries to recover, for communities to recover, and I think this is way beyond political correctness. This is really trying to go to the root causes of why outbreaks and diseases can cause harm.

CORNISH: Dr. Keiji Fukuda - he's the assistant director for health security at the World Health Organization. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

FUKUDA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.