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How WHO names a new disease?

Topics Covered: Important International institutions, agencies and fora, their structure, mandate.

How WHO names a new disease?

What to study?

For Prelims and Mains: Naming procedure, need for and significance.

Context: On February 11, the World Health Organization officially announced COVID-19 as the name for the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

  • This comes more than 40 days after WHO was alerted by China about a cluster of pneumonia-like cases seen in the city of Wuhan in Hubei province.


The WHO had to come up the name in line with the 2015 guidelines between the global agency, the World Organisation for Animal Health and the Food and Agriculture Organization.

What does the name COVID-19 stand for?

The “CO” in COVID stands corona, while “VI” is for virus and “D” for disease. The number 19 stands for the year 2019 when the outbreak was first identified.

Why was WHO in a hurry to name the disease?

The urgency to assign a name to the disease is to prevent the use of other names that can be “inaccurate or stigmatising”. People outside the scientific community tend to call a new disease by common names. But once the name gets “established in common usage through the Internet and social media, they are difficult to change, even if an inappropriate name is being used. Therefore, it is important that whoever first reports on a newly identified human disease uses an appropriate name that is scientifically sound and socially acceptable.

Why and how did the WHO come up with guidelines to name new diseases?

In May 2015, the WHO came up guidelines on how to name a new disease.

  1. The WHO identified the best practices to name new human diseases in consultation and collaboration with the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
  2. The main aim behind this exercise was to “minimise unnecessary negative impact of disease names on trade, travel, tourism or animal welfare, and avoid causing offence to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups”.

What best practices did the guidelines suggest?

  1. According to the guidelines, name of a new disease should consist of a combination of terms.
  2. These terms consist of a generic descriptive term based on clinical symptoms (respiratory), physiological processes (diarrhoea), and anatomical or pathological references (cardic).
  3. It can refer to specific descriptive terms such as those who are afflicted (infant, juvenile, and maternal), seasonality (summer, winter) and severity (mild, severe).
  4. The name can also include other factual elements such as the environment (ocean, river), causal pathogen (coronavirus) and the year the new disease is first detected with or without mentioning the month.
  5. The year is used when it becomes “necessary to differentiate between similar events that happened in different years”.
  6. Besides, the WHO has also listed out the terms that should be avoided while naming a new disease. This includes, geographic locations, people’s names, species of animal or food, references to culture, population, industry or occupation, and terms that incite undue fear.


There are a few disease names that mentions the geographic location — cities, countries or regions — where the disease, Zika etc.

Few diseases carry the name of the person who first identified the disease. Chagas disease is named after the Brazilian physician Carlos Chagas, who discovered the disease in 1909.

Some diseases carry the name of animals — bird flu (H5N1) and swine flu (H1N1). The 2009 H1N1 pandemic was commonly referred to as swine flu.

Sources: the Hindu.