The WHO is treading carefully on naming the 2019 novel coronavirus, keen to avoid stigmatizing the city of Wuhan, where the outbreak began, or China.
The UN health agency’s official temporary name for the disease, which it has designated as a global health emergency of international concern, is “2019-nCoV acute respiratory disease.”
The date refers to when it was first identified on Dec. 31 last year 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 the WHO’s Emerging Diseases and Zoonosis 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, as well as coronavirus experts on the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses.
However, picking a more specific name is fraught with dangers.
Under a set of guidelines issued in 2015, the 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.
WHO Global Infectious Hazard Preparedness director Sylvie Briand earlier this week said 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 stigmatize 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,” WHO Health Emergencies Programme executive director Michael Ryan said.
Meanwhile, China announced yesterday that it would temporarily call the disease, which has killed more than 700 people, novel coronavirus pneumonia (NCP).
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