Why We Don't Name Diseases After Places Anymore

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All the legit health and policy organisations out there (the WHO and the CDC among them) are calling the coronavirus disease by its agreed-upon name, COVID-19. But a few folks are stubbornly arguing that we should call it the “Chinese” virus or otherwise peg its name to a location. That’s bullshit, and here’s why.

Many diseases in the past have been named after the place they originated, and that turned out to be a bad idea for many reasons. For one, it’s often not accurate. The pandemic influenza of 1918 was nicknamed the “Spanish flu” in many countries, not because it started in Spain, but because governments didn’t want word to get out that they were experiencing a disease outbreak while they were at war. Spain’s newspapers were uncensored, so they were the first to report on it at length. The virus actually originated elsewhere, possibly in Kansas. So a more accurate geographical name might have been the “American flu” or “Kansas flu.”

But nobody wants their home country to be infamous for originating a disease, accurate or not. How would you feel if you lived near the Ebola river or the Zika forest?

Unwise names can also interfere with properly dealing with an outbreak. When there was a plague outbreak in Chinatown in San Francisco in 1900, anti-Chinese racism and xenophobia contributed to discrimination, stigmatization, and bungled health policy.

Anti-Chinese sentiments are an issue with the coronavirus as well. Focusing on who is carrying a disease will never be as effective as focusing on how to properly contain it. The virus doesn’t care where you came from. Anyone can contract it.

For all of these reasons, the World Health Organisation issued guidelines a few years ago about naming diseases in a way that describes them accurately, without stigmatizing people or places or inciting unnecessary fear. Diseases are now supposed to be named after their symptoms, characteristics, and the cause of the disease if known. COVID-19, short for “coronavirus disease discovered in 2019,” is an appropriate name. Here’s what they don’t recommend:

Terms that should be avoided in disease names include geographic locations (e.g. Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, Spanish Flu, Rift Valley fever), people’s names (e.g. Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, Chagas disease), species of animal or food (e.g. swine flu, bird flu, monkey pox), cultural, population, industry or occupational references (e.g. legionnaires), and terms that incite undue fear (e.g. unknown, fatal, epidemic).

So, yes, there were diseases named that way in the past, but the public health community learned from their mistakes and we don’t do that anymore.

Anybody who is arguing, today, in 2020, for a geographical name for a disease is either naive of this history (send them this article!) or is trying to deliberately stir up xenophobic sentiments. World leaders are now blaming each other for the virus, which is silly. It’s just a virus. So let’s take it seriously and call it by its real name.


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