Coronavirus has spread around the world since it first emerged in Wuhan -- but WHO will not name the virus after the city Photo: AFP
health

What's in a name? WHO tiptoes around what to call virus

12 Comments
By Dario THUBURN

Keen to avoid stigmatising the city of Wuhan, where the outbreak began, or Chinese people, the World Health Organization is treading carefully on naming the new virus.

The U.N. health agency's official temporary name for the disease, which it has designated as a global health emergency, is "2019-nCoV acute respiratory disease".

The date refers to when it was first identified on Dec 31, 2019 and "nCoV" stands for "novel coronavirus" -- the family of viruses it belongs to.

"We thought it was very important that we provide an interim name so that no location was associated with the name," Maria Van Kerkhove, head of WHO's Emerging Diseases unit, told the agency's executive board on Friday.

"I'm sure you've all seen many media reports that are still calling it using Wuhan or China and we wanted to ensure that there was no stigma," she said.

The final decision on a name is expected within days and is up to the WHO itself as well as coronavirus experts on the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV).

But picking a more specific name is fraught with dangers.

Under a set of guidelines issued in 2015, WHO advises against using place names such as Ebola and Zika -- where those diseases were first identified and which are now inevitably linked to them in the public imagination.

Sylvie Briand, head of WHO's Global Infectious Hazard Preparedness division, said this week that the use of a place name created "an unnecessary burden".

More general names such as "Middle East Respiratory Syndrome" or "Spanish flu" are also to be avoided as they can stigmatise entire regions or ethnic groups.

"It is the responsibility of us all to ensure that there is no stigma associated with this disease, and the unnecessary and unhelpful profiling of individuals based on ethnicity is utterly and completely unacceptable," said Michael Ryan, head of WHO's Health Emergencies Program.

The WHO also points out that using animal species in the name can create confusion such as H1N1, which was popularly referred to as "swine flu".

This had a major effect for the pork industry even though the disease was being spread by people rather than pigs.

H1N1 was also sometimes also called Mexican flu "which was not very nice for Mexican people," Briand said.

People's names -- usually the scientists who identified the disease -- are also banned, as are "terms that incite undue fear" such as "unknown" or "fatal", the WHO said.

"We've seen certain disease names provoke a backlash against members of particular religious or ethnic communities, create unjustified barriers to travel, commerce and trade, and trigger needless slaughtering of food animals," the WHO said in its guidelines.

Instead, it recommended that any new name should be descriptive and include the causative pathogen if known, as well as being short and easy to pronounce.

"We are really trying to be as neutral as possible, but as helpful as possible as well, because we need to name things with the same name everywhere in the world if we want to tackle the enemy in the same way," Briand said.

© 2020 AFP

©2020 GPlusMedia Inc.

12 Comments
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Not-Wuhan/China-Corona-Virus?

A common name should be helpful, descriptive, and follow existing naming conventions.

The scientific name is for use by scientists in that specific field.

The common name has already been selected. Wuhan virus.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

As far as WHO's nomenclature since the outbreak of ""2019-nCoV acute respiratory disease" is concerned, the way the people in Taiwan has been treated was incomprehensible. Taiwan authorities rightly complained as many as three times as of this writing. I am very saddened to hear of the repeated offenses against the island people.

Why does the WHO throw them off when It should concentrate its limited resources in combating the spread of virus. To defray our attention? What a waste of public money, too.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

The WHO is in the pocket of China. I believe they will need to check with Xi Jinping before naming the virus. They are going to need to find him first however.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

WURS because it’s worse than SARS?

WUHARS too long?

So, to avoid offending anyone, erm... OURS, coz it’s everyone’s problem now? (Or would that offend us?)

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Nanda - I am offended for all of us.

How about poohvirus?

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Karmavirus has a nice ring to it. You reap what you sow and this is what you get when you know the problem is there, you've been called out on it already once before, SARS, and yet you kept going.

Karmavirus doesn't signal out Wuhan or China but anyone who asks years from now will understand why it was called that because it will happen again. Old disgusting habits are hard to break. If you're offend by the truth then I hate to break it to you but the viruses don't care and they're an equal opportunity killer.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Just give them 'given' names like they do for storms.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

cvDaphne, for example, JJ?

2 ( +2 / -0 )

The common name has already been selected. Wuhan virus.

The article clearly mentions the current conventions, the name of a place is neither helpful nor descriptive, so you contradict your own reasoning by arbitrarily deciding it shares the name of the place.

In reality the common name has not been decided yet.

The WHO is in the pocket of China. I believe they will need to check with Xi Jinping before naming the virus. They are going to need to find him first however.

Unless you think the chinese predicted from 2015 this outbreak this makes no sense, the guidelines were decided from there, to avoid using the names of people and places to name all diseases, not only infections. It is just not useful and have negative consequences to name things like "Smith's congenital impotence"

WURS because it’s worse than SARS?

WUHARS too long?

So, to avoid offending anyone, erm... OURS, coz it’s everyone’s problem now? (Or would that offend us?)

No, it is worse because it is not useful, the name of the place says absolutely nothing about the pathology or the particular characteristics of a disease, so from 4 years ago the WHO decided to impulse better naming conventions, not only for the people that know things from the TV but for the health professionals that need to have the disease details on mind for their work.

Just give them 'given' names like they do for storms.

How does this would help opposite of having a descriptive name? If somebody say "I got Karen's disease" does it say more to you than "I got transient intestinal flora disruption"?

1 ( +2 / -1 )

A little birdie says the Chinese authorities are calling it “Novel Coronavirus Pneumonia”.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Enough with the PC pussyfooting, everyone knows it originated in Wuhan and that is in China, so either Wuhan virus or China virus. Though as there will probably over the years be more originating in China probably best to stick with what most people not in the media are referring to it as, Wuhan virus.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

This ridiculous walking on egg shells make the WHO look utterly pathetic and idiotic. Of course it should be called the Wuhan virus. Or, better still, the Wuhan killer virus. And if China, or the people of Wuhan in particular, don't like it, guess what: I don't care.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

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