WASHINGTON: Some diseases just have a bad name. But even when their commonly known labels glorify Nazi doctors or slander certain ethnic groups, old habits are hard to change, experts say.
Medical conditions, viruses and even personality quirks have long been named after places, famous athletes, pioneering doctors and literary giants.
The H1N1 influenza that sparked a worldwide pandemic in 2009 was initially called Mexican swine flu, while Pickwickian syndrome is another name for obesity hypoventilation syndrome, based on a fat character in a Charles Dickens novel.
The most recent affliction to make headlines is Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus, or MERS-CoV, which has killed 58 of the 130 people infected since 2012.
The illness has been found in Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
Its name initially referred to Saudi Arabia, because an Egyptian scientist first identified it in a Saudi patient.
But, according to Ron Fouchier, a leading scientist at Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands where the analysis was done, Saudi officials “were not pleased.”
“We then renamed the virus isolate HCoV-EMC for human coronavirus erasmus MC, to take away any sensitivities,” he told AFP.
But Fouchier said Saudi leaders were not pleased by the new name either, so he and other investigators convened, discussed and agreed unanimously on a new name: MERS-CoV.
The World Health Organization approved the name in May, but added: “WHO generally prefers that virus names do not refer to the region or place of the initial detection.”
With no central regulatory body for names, diseases and conditions can end up with multiple or contentious labels.
“Where there’s disagreement, it can get messy,” said Stephanie Morrison, an expert at the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Some inappropriate names have quickly disappeared.
HIV/AIDS was once referred to as 4-H disease, referring to Haitians, homosexuals, hemophiliacs and heroin. Another name that was introduced in 1982 but soon vanished was GRID, for gay-related immune deficiency.
No longer are diseases regularly named after their discoverers, but many persist, like Alzheimer’s disease and Tourette’s syndrome.
Naming conditions after geographic places has created memorable descriptors – but which tend to offend.
The naming of a new drug-resistant superbug in 2009 after New Delhi sparked outcry in India, where medical experts and parliamentarians said the name cast the city as a dirty place.
The enzyme was named New Delhi metallo-lactamase-1, or NDM-1, and its related gene blaNDM-1, after it was found in an Indian man who had settled in Sweden but became ill on a visit to India in 2007.
The superbug has since been found around the world, noted Ajai Singh, a doctor in Mumbai who has likened the label to “name calling.”