Who Names Diseases？
emember the Naples Soldier， the vicious flu pandemic that swept the globe almost 100 years ago， infecting one in three people and killing up to 50 million？ You probably don't， but you might remember the Spanish flu， the name by which that pandemic is better known. ‘Naples Soldier’ was what the Spanish called it， after a catchy tune that was being played in local music halls at the time. They knew the origins of the disaster lay beyond their borders and， understandably， refused to take the blame.
The Spanish flu stands as a monument to the ugly history of disease naming. The world was at war in 1918， and the belligerent nations censored their press，not wanting to damage their populations' morale. Spain， however， was neutral in that war， and when the first cases of flu occurred there， they were widely reported. The disease had been in the United States for two months already， and in France for several weeks at least， but that information was kept out of their newspapers. The world came to see the disease as pulsing out from Spain， a belief that was encouraged by propagandists in other countries whom it suited to shift the blame.
The naming of diseases has always been as much about politics and the human need to identify a scapegoat， as it has been about accurately labelling a new threat to life. Periodic attempts have been made to remove the subjective from the process. Three United Nations agencies – the World Health Organization （WHO），the Food and Agriculture Organization， and the World Organisation for Animal Health – play a particularly important role when it comes to infectious diseases， which don't respect borders. WHO hosts the International Classification of Diseases （ICD）， which has long assigned the final name to any human disease. And in 2015， WHO came up with an updated set of guidelines for labelling infectious diseases， which account for the vast majority of threats to human life.
Prior to 2015， the naming system was fraught. One issue was that very little might be known about a disease early on; nonetheless， some kind of name is required， because it's hard to fight a nameless menace. The first case of Middle East respiratory syndrome was identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012， but three years later there was an outbreak in South Korea. Lyme disease， which was named for the town in Connecticut where it was first identified in 1976， is now a problem throughout North America， as well as in Europe and Asia.
The advent of the internet has made things only worse， because the name can potentially travel farther and faster than the disease – especially given that the person assigning that first name is more likely to be a government minister， bureaucrat or journalist than an expert in disease.
Under the 2015 guidelines， infectious disease names would no longer single out places， species or human groups defined by their sexual， religious or cultural identity. Nor would they include alarming terms such as‘unknown’ or ‘fatal’. Such monikers as Rift Valley fever or Legionnaires' disease would never fly， though disease names already ensconced would not be changed.
Instead， according to the WHO， disease names would thenceforth make use of generic descriptive terms. These could include symptoms – respiratory disease，for instance， or watery diarrhoea. The name might designate an affected group， but in neutral terms. It might refer to a season of the year or a bodily system –cardiac or nervous.
The WHO hoped that by halting politically inspired names， it would enhance public health. After all， the fallout from misnaming a disease can be devastating. The 2009 flu pandemic was initially dubbed swine flu. It was actually spread by humans， not pigs，but the Egyptian government still ordered the slaughter of the country's pig population – some 300，000 animals， mostly belonging to the Coptic minority –in a misguided attempt to halt the contagion.