Who Names Diseases?

May 23, 2017
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Remember 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.

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Image: By U.S. Army photographer – Army.mil http://www.army.mil/-images/2008/09/24/22729/army.mil-2008-09-25-103608.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9913432

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