Naming Human Diseases

Published: 15 May 2015

I have a friend who is a language teacher. Some time ago, we were chatting about differences among U.S., Australian, and British English. She said, “I admire how Americans name things. You call things by what they look like and what they are. Like cotton candy.” I asked her what they call it in Australia, and she said “Fairy floss!” I thought of my friend this week, when I read about the new World Health Organization (WHO) best practices for naming human diseases.

I hadn’t thought much about how we name diseases or why we settle on one name or another. It turns out that the naming process can be…less than scientific. Maybe the name is based on the location where the disease first spreads or the last name of the first researcher to discover it. Jules Berman posted a list of the many ways diseases end up with names on his blog, if you’re curious. The point is, the name doesn’t necessarily describe the disease in the most meaningful way. After this name becomes fixed in common usage, it’s probably too late to change it to something more meaningful, even if the initial name has harmful consequences.

An example from another NPR article is Dr. Fukuda’s explanation of problems with the name “swine flu:”

“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.”

Until I read this, I didn’t think about what I really know about swine flu. I guess I also thought of it as some kind of pig superbug. I don’t remember thinking that people could get it from eating pork, although I suppose someone could end up thinking that. As I read about the way diseases are named, I realized I’ve often made incorrect assumptions based on disease names. For example, I thought that “Legionnaire’s disease” probably had something to do with the French Foreign Legion until I looked it up.

Technical writers, including this one, know that it matters which words we use. Names for human diseases seem especially fraught – thinking about diseases can evoke unpleasant emotions (like fear) and strong themes (like health and death). Who doesn’t shiver at the thought of Ebola virus?

The WHO’s new best practices are a well-written technical document. Only three clear pages that are probably even clearer to the intended audience. What might we name the most recent outbreak of Ebola virus, if we followed these best practices? Maybe “2015 Severe Acute Hemorrhagic Fever?” A name like that does tell people much more than “Ebola virus.”