WHO Knew?

June 4, 2015

The year was 1995 and talk show host Oprah Winfrey was “entertaining” her live studio audience with the recent discovery of BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) or “mad cow disease” in the United States. The animal-to-human transmission had been recently documented and the show threw Americans into a tizzy when Oprah declared she would stop eating meat as a result of the beef industry’s controversial practices.Texan cattle producers claimed that Winfrey’s remarks subsequently sent cattle prices tumbling, costing them $12 million. They sued Winfrey under a 1995 Texas law under which people can be held liable if they make false and disparaging statements about perishable food products. They lost.

What wasn’t lost was the public’s visual imagination of what constitutes a “mad cow” — an angry, deranged, and possibly confused bovine anxiously awaiting its inevitable death at the slaughter house, its diseased meat ending up in our homes, on our plates. Or how about the “bird flu?” Sickly birds dropping their virus on innocent victims below. Let us not forget about other confusing animal-named pandemics, such as swine flu, hoof and mouth disease, chickenpox and cat-scratch fever. Even kittens aren’t safe from cruel stereotyping!

Apparently the World Health Organization (WHO) also understands the potential for public bewilderment, as evidenced in their new guidelines, released earlier this month. Disease names can instigate inaccuracies and stigmas and can confer not only upon animals, but people, regions and economies. Under the WHO’s guidance, a disease name should consist of (1) a generic descriptive term based on symptoms, (2) who is afflicted, (3) seasonality and/or (4) severity. The name can also include other factual elements like the environment and the year and month detected. One example? Swine flu could go by A(H1N1)pdm09, a name the WHO put forth in 2009.

And while these new and somewhat controversial specifications do not apply to disease names that have already been established, I, for one, will be happy to gradually relinquish my unfounded fear of farm animals and their potential for spreading disease. In the interim, I’ll continue washing my hands a lot.