The OIE welcomes the publication of WHO Best Practices for the naming of new infectious diseases

New emerging diseases are affecting our world every year, and in the last few decades, the naming of new diseases has increasingly become a challenge. Inaccurate and ill-conceived wordings have resulted in severe unintended consequences  on the local culture, tourism, and rural economy in general. To avoid such situations, the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) has been working with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) to develop a common naming method to be considered for any emerging infectious disease regardless of the species where it is first observed. This method could be used by both the animal health and the human health community in a consistent and coherent manner.

OIE WHO best practices

Paris, May 12th 2015 – Since the beginning of the century, several epidemics such as the Ebola virus disease (EVD), the diverse strains of influenza of animal origin or the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, have clearly brought the attention to the role of risk communication during disease emergency response.

In particular, one of the major communication challenges identified has been the “disease naming” issue of emerging diseases. In order to avoid the potential vacuum of information or excess of misinformation when facing a new threat, time is of the essence. However, the urgency of such situations should not support choices that could result in stigmatization of geographical locations, cultures or animal species through the name given to the disease without harmonised rules.

For example, in 2009 the confusion between “classical swine influenza”, “swine flu”, and the “pandemic influenza” strain became itself a topic of discussion in the media. The international health community ultimately faced the difficulty of having the media change and adopt the agreed official nomenclature of “H1N1 2009 pandemic influenza”. More recently, a regionally stigmatizing name was given to the respiratory disease caused by a particular strain of coronavirus, the so called Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, which caused involuntary negative economic and social impacts in that region.

After several years of common work with its international partners, the OIE welcomes the publication of Best Practices for the naming of new human infectious diseases by the World Health Organization. This document can be found on the WHO website and an announcement letter from the three international organisations involved in the process, FAO, OIE and WHO, has been published on the Science website last week.

These guidelines aim to close the gap between the period in which a new human disease is identified and eventually assigned a final name by the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) office managed by WHO, which provides a final standard name for each human disease.

These few rules are in line with the One Health integrated approach and the Tripartite agreement between FAO/OIE/WHO for responding to emerging infectious diseases at the animal-human-ecosystems interface. This includes enhanced disease intelligence, surveillance, early detection and emergency response systems at local, national, regional and global levels that are supported by strong and stable Public and Animal Health Services at country level, as well as effective communication strategies.

The OIE strongly encourages all national, regional, and international stakeholders, including scientists, national authorities, and media to follow these WHO best practices in the event of the emergence of a new disease, so that inappropriate disease names are not created and the public is better served and informed.

1World Health Organization