Thursday, October 22, 2015

What’s in a Name? Disease Naming Guidelines set by W.H.O

The mission of many global health organizations is to promote health, cure diseases, build health system infrastructure, and implement pro-health equity policies. Recently, an article in the New York Times that caught my eye, “W.H.O Urges More Care in Naming Diseases.”  The World Health
Organization recently made an announcement that “disease names may not include geographic locations, people’s names, species of animal or food, references to culture, population, industry or occupation, and ‘terms that incite undue fear’”. Making changes and implementing policy on the process of disease naming may seem insignificant at first when compared to the necessity of medicine and healthcare poverty-stricken areas desperately need, however W.H.O offered substantial arguments for why the name of a disease can have harmful effects and should render greater significance.

Disease names that include place, name, or any other signifier previously mentioned, can have the harmful effects of stigmatizing not only a disease, but the geographic location, culture, population or industry itself. Furthermore, it can lead to false conceptions of a disease that could lead people to think they are not subject to contract a disease due to a name that may be geographically confining such as is with the case of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), which originated in the Middle East but has spread around the world. WHO is not suggesting to change the names of known diseases, rather, it effectively set guidelines for naming diseases hereafter that will “help counter stigmatization and faulty assumptions made by the public and decision makers when addressing emerging infectious diseases” (Dr. Jewel Mullen, Public Health commissioner).

This notion of disease naming brings attention to the idea of health as a component of ‘being’. It’s not just about disease treating. The name of the disease and the standing associations bound to the disease among people and society effectively influences how one not only perceives, but experiences the disease.

Contributed by Sedona Hoppe-Brosse

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