On Tuesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) gave an official name to the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. The disease will be called “COVID-19”; the “CO” stands for coronavirus, “VI” for virus and “D” for disease. The coronavirus itself is called “nCoV-2019”.
The death toll from the virus has now crossed 1,000 and the disease has infected tens of thousands of people, the majority of them in China.
Explained: How WHO names diseases
The WHO, in consultation with the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), has identified best practices for naming new human diseases. These best practices apply to a new disease:
- That is an infection, syndrome, or disease of humans;
- That has never been recognised before in humans;
- That has potential public health impact; and
- Where no disease name is yet established in common usage
Names that are assigned by the WHO may or may not be approved by the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) at a later stage. The ICD, which is also managed by the WHO, provides a final standard name for each human disease according to standard guidelines that are aimed at reducing the negative impact from names while balancing science, communication and policy.
Terms to avoid
In a statement on Tuesday, the WHO Director-General said: “Under agreed guidelines… we had to find a name that did not refer to a geographical location, an animal, an individual or group of people, and which is also pronounceable and related to the disease. Having a name matters to prevent the use of other names that can be inaccurate or stigmatizing.”
The agreed best practices include advice on what the disease names should not include, such as geographic location (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, Spanish Flu, Japanese encephalitis). Disease names should not include people’s names (Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, Chagas disease), the species or class of animal or food (swine flu, monkeypox etc.), cultural or occupational references (miners, butchers, cooks, nurses etc.) and terms that incite “undue fear” such as death, fatal and epidemic.
In a media note issued in May 2015, WHO had said that the use of names such as “swine flu” and “Middle East Respiratory Syndrome” has had “unintended negative impacts” by stigmatising certain communities and economic sectors.
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Terms to include
The best practices include using generic descriptive terms such as respiratory diseases, hepatitis, neurologic syndrome, watery diarrhoea. They include using specific descriptive terms that may indicate the age group of the patients and the time course of the disease, such as progressive, juvenile or severe.
If the causative pathogen is known, it should be used as part of the disease name with additional descriptors such as the year when the disease was first reported or detected. For example, novel coronavirus respiratory syndrome. The names should also be short (rabies, malaria, polio) and should be consistent with the guidelines under the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) Content Model Reference Guide.
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As per the WHO, “severe” should be used only for those diseases that have a very high initial case fatality rate. “Novel” can be used to indicate a new pathogen of a previously known type. In the case of the novel coronavirus, “recognizing that this term will become obsolete if other new pathogens of that type are identified”, the WHO has now changed its name.
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