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Home » ABOUT ‘WHO’ AND HOW IT NAMES DISEASES

ABOUT ‘WHO’ AND HOW IT NAMES DISEASES

GS 2 – International Relations

GS 2 – Health Sector

 

Introduction

The World Health Organization (WHO) is a specialised agency of the United Nations that is concerned with world public health. It was established on 7 April 1948, and is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. The WHO is a member of the United Nations Development Group. Its predecessor, the Health Organisation, was an agency of the League of Nations.

The WHO constitution was signed by 61 countries (all 51 member countries and 10 others) on 22 July 1946, with the first meeting of the World Health Assembly concluding on 24 July 1948. It incorporated the Office International d'Hygiène Publique and the League of Nations Health Organisation. Since its establishment, it has played a leading role in the eradication of smallpox. Its current priorities include communicable diseases, in particular HIV/AIDS, Ebola, malaria and tuberculosis; the mitigation of the effects of non-communicable diseases such as sexual and reproductive health, development, and aging; nutrition, food security and healthy eating; occupational health; substance abuse; and driving the development of reporting, publications, and networking.

 

A brief history

The International Sanitary Conferences, originally held on 23 June 1851, were the first predecessors of the WHO. A series of 14 conferences that lasted from 1851 to 1938, the International Sanitary Conferences worked to combat many diseases, chief among them cholera, yellow fever, and the bubonic plague. The conferences were largely ineffective until the seventh, in 1892; when an International Sanitary Convention that dealt with cholera was passed. Five years later, a convention for the plague was signed. In part as a result of the successes of the Conferences, the Pan-American Sanitary Bureau, and the Office International d'Hygiène Publique were soon founded in 1902 and 1907, respectively. When the League of Nations was formed in 1920, they established the Health Organization of the League of Nations. After World War II, the United Nations absorbed all the other health organizations, to form the WHO.

Functions of WHO

The work of the WHO is defined by its Constitution, which divides WHO’s core functions into three categories:

  • Normative functions, including international conventions and agreements, regulations and non-binding standards and recommendations;
  • Directing and coordinating functions, including its health for all, poverty and health, and essential medicine activities and its specific disease programs;
  • Research and technical cooperation functions, including disease eradication and emergencies.

 

Naming the Coronavirus

The World Health Organisation (WHO) gave an official name to the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. The disease will now be called “COVID-19”; the “CO” stands for coronavirus, “VI” for virus and “D” for disease. The coronavirus itself is being called “nCoV-2019”.

What considerations does the WHO take into account while naming new human infectious diseases?

The WHO, in consultation and collaboration with the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), has identified the best practices for naming new human diseases, “with the aim to minimize unnecessary negative impact of disease names on trade, travel, tourism or animal welfare, and avoid causing offence to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups”. These best practices apply to those new diseases that can be classified as an infection, syndrome, or disease of humans; a disease that has never been recognised before in humans; has potential health impact and in those cases where no disease name is established in common usage.

Significantly, as per the WHO, the assigning of an “appropriate” disease name is necessary by those who first report a new human disease, especially given the rapid and global communication through social media and other electronic means. In case an inappropriate name has started circulating, the WHO may assign an interim name and recommend its use.

Furthermore, names that are assigned by the WHO may or may not be approved by the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) at a later stage. The ICD, which is also managed by the WHO, provides a final standard name for each human disease according to standard guidelines that are aimed at reducing the negative impact from names while balancing science, communication and policy. In a media note that the WHO issued in May 2015, it said that the use of names such as “swine flu” and “Middle East Respiratory Syndrome” has had “unintended negative impacts” by stigmatising certain communities and economic sectors.

What are WHO’s best practices for disease naming?

The best practices include using generic descriptive terms such as respiratory diseases, hepatitis, neurologic syndrome, watery diarrhoea and using specific descriptive terms that may indicate the age group of the patients and the time course of the disease, such as progressive, juvenile or severe.

Further, in case the causative pathogen is known, it should be used as part of the disease name with additional descriptors such as the year when the disease was first reported or detected. For example, novel coronavirus respiratory syndrome. The names should also be short (rabies, malaria, polio) and should be consistent with the guidelines under the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) Content Model Reference Guide.

Additionally, the best practices also include advice on what the disease names should not include, such as the geographic location where it was first reported. For example, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, Spanish Flu, Japanese encephalitis and Lyme disease. Disease names should also not include people’s names (Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, Chagas disease), the species or class of animal or food (swine flu, monkeypox etc.), cultural or occupational references (miners, butchers, cooks, nurses etc.) and terms that incite “undue fear” such as death, fatal and epidemic.

 

Previous Year Questions

  1. Identify the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that are related to health. Discuss the success of the actions taken by the Government for achieving the same. (2013)
  2. Public health system has limitation in providing universal health coverage. Do you think that private sector can help in bridging the gap? What other viable alternatives do you suggest? (2015)
  3. What do you understand by Fixed Dose drug Combinations (FDCs)? Discuss their merits and demerits. (2013)
  4. Can overuse and free availability of antibiotics without Doctor’s prescription, be contributors to the emergence of drug-resistant diseases in India? What are the available mechanisms for monitoring and control? Critically discuss the various issues involved. (2014)
  5. What are the areas of prohibitive labour that can be sustainably managed by robots? Discuss the initiatives that can propel the research in premier research institutes for substantive and gainful innovation. (2015)
  6. Discuss India’s achievements in the field of Space Science and Technology. How the application of this technology has helped India in its socio-economic development? (2016)
  7. Why is nanotechnology one of the key technologies of the 21st century? Describe the salient features of Indian Government’s Mission on Nano science and Technology and the scope of its application in the development process of the country. (2016)
  8. What is the CyberDome Project? Explain how it can be useful in controlling internet crimes in India. (2019)
  9. Rise of Artificial Intelligence: the threat of jobless future or better job opportunities through reskilling and upskilling. (Essay paper 2019)
  10. What is India’s plan to have its own space station and how will it benefit our space programme? (2019)