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Names: How Contagious Are They?


People usually think a name is just a name. It’s a string of words randomly bunched together that acts as the first touch point to a bigger story. But how much weight can just one name carry?

On the 8th of May, the World Health Organisation held a conference in Geneva, calling on scientists, national authorities and the media to come up with a new strategy to naming new human infectious diseases to minimise unnecessary negative effects on nations, economies and people.

“In recent years, several new human infectious diseases have emerged. The use of names such as ‘swine flu’ and ‘Middle East Respiratory Syndrome’ has had unintended negative impacts by stigmatising certain communities or economic sectors,” says Dr Keiji Fukuda, Assistant Director-General for Health Security, WHO.

“This may seem like a trivial issue to some, but disease names really do matter to the people who are directly affected. We’ve seen certain disease names provoke a backlash against members of particular religious or ethnic communities, create unjustified barriers to travel, commerce and trade, and trigger needless slaughtering of food animals. This can have serious consequences for peoples’ lives and livelihoods.”

Part of the problem is that diseases are commonly named by people outside the scientific community, which occasionally forms gross generalisations and create a negative knock-on effect. Once a disease is named, branded and established on news reports and social media, they are difficult to change – even if a really inappropriate name is being used.

Ironically, the name usually spreads faster and wider than the virus itself.

Terms that should be avoided include geographic locations (e.g. Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, Spanish Flu, Rift Valley fever), people’s names (e.g. Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, Chagas disease), species of animal or food (e.g. swine flu, bird flu, monkey pox), cultural, population, industry or occupational references (e.g. legionnaires), and terms that incite undue fear (e.g. unknown, fatal, epidemic).

Yet even with these new rules and regulations in play, people will always use the name that stick because quite honestly, it’s the fear mongering ones that people remember.

So let this be a cautionary tale for all. When you next name your product, service, website, development or whatever you have in the works, give it a second thought and consider the adverse effects it may have – not just for your brand but for everything around it.

A name carries character, reputation, heritage, labels and most importantly identity. It is only safe to say that to be in charge of a name, bears even greater responsibility and liability for the act itself.

So what’s in a name? Evidently, a lot.

What does your brand name stand for?

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