The World Health Organization (WHO) is reminding scientists and public health officials to take care when naming new human infectious diseases; the wrong name can have adverse side-effects.

“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,” Dr. Keiji Fukuda, WHO’s assistant director general health security, said in a press release. “This may seem like a trivial issue to some, but disease names really do matter to the people who are directly affected.” Fukuda added he’s seen certain names provoke a backlash among particular religious or ethnic communities, which then “create unjustified barriers to travel, commerce and trade, and trigger needless slaughtering of food animals.”

While the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) has final say on what a new infectious disease is called, it’s that much harder to implement when those outside the ICD and scientific community are referring to it as something else. These unofficial names tend to spread online, particularly across social media networks, and ultimately cause confusion. In which case, WHO has collaborated with the ICD, the World Organization for Animal Health, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations to come up with best practices.

These practices indicate any name applied to a new disease “should consist of generic descriptive terms, based on the symptoms that the disease causes, such as respiratory disease, neurologic syndrome, watery diarrhea.” In addition to a generic description of symptoms, there should be more specific terms regarding “how the disease manifests, who it affects, its severity or seasonality.” And if the pathogen responsible for the disease is known, it should be factored into the final name. For example, salmonella is caused by a group of bacteria with the same name.

That said, name should not consist of geographic locations, people’s names, any species of animal or food, nor should they consist of any cultural, population, industry, or occupational references. Additionally, names alone should not be fear-inducing. Think of “unknown,” “fatal,” and “epidemic.”

“The new best practices do not replace the existing ICD system, but rather provide an interim solution prior to the assignment of a final ICD disease name,” WHO explained. “As these best practices only apply to disease names for common usage, they also do not affect the work of existing international authoritative bodies responsible for scientific taxonomy and nomenclature of microorganisms.”

Source: World Health Organization, 2015.