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Tuesday, December 06, 2005

WHO Names The Bird Flu?

If you have been following the H5N1 saga, by now you may be wondering exactly what WHO is doing? On casual inspection they have seemed to be lurching around in circles for the last few months and tossing out press releases nearly at random.

I can now solve that mystery for you. They have been deeply involved in very important meetings to deal with an upcoming crisis. They are working very hard to develop a name for the pandemic that will be politically correct. I am not making this up:
Officials from the WHO and a variety of member countries meeting in Geneva this week will broach the topic of naming the next pandemic as part of discussions aimed at charting risk communications strategies for that eventual outbreak.

The idea is to get out ahead of the media in a bid to ensure that whatever name the next pandemic gets tagged with doesn't leave a historical black mark on the country or region from whence the causative flu virus emerges.

"One of the things we've been worried about is the potential for stigma," Dick Thompson, spokesperson for the WHO's communicable diseases branch, explained Tuesday.

"...I think that we have a responsibility to think through what kind of stigma this might produce and see if we can do anything about that."
Now that Dick mentions it, I can see that the hospital corridors full of gasping, gurgling people (dying because there are no ventilators and oxygen units left) would be much pleasanter places if everyone could gasp and gurgle themselves to death secure in the knowledge that their hometown's or country's reputation wasn't going to be unfairly besmirched. Or maybe not.

Perhaps the WHO could test-market a name over in Indonesia by holding a poll in the isolation hospitals there. If it's this important, I say we should spare no expense. On the other hand, perhaps WHO prefers to meet in more comfortable circumstances than a hospital in which they are actually treating victims. For one thing, there's no open bar or complimentary continental breakfasts in hospital intensive care wards.

I'll admit that I felt a moment of shock on reading this article. I had had the foolish idea that they were holding these meetings in an attempt to craft strategies to prevent people from dying, rather than worrying about crafting the Martha-Stewartishly perfect name for the pandemic. By the way, you pay for this sort of thing. I suspect that quite a few oxygen tents and kidney dialysis machines could have been purchased for the cost of this conference.
If that makes you wince, perhaps the knowledge that WHO staffers are enjoying this mission-critical task will ease your pain:
Thompson has some experience naming diseases. He was among a trio of WHO officials who came up with the name severe acute respiratory syndrome for a disease that is now much better known its catchy acronym, SARS.

Dr. David Heymann convened the meeting that led to the selection of that name.
...
In 2003, Heymann, Thompson and Denis Aitken, who worked in the office of then-director general Gro Brundtland, batted around a bunch of ideas for about 15 minutes. They were looking for a name like AIDS - something that would stick to the disease, Heymann said.

"It was kind of fun."
Glad to hear it. I guess the local yokels will just have to hold bake sales to buy equipment to staff temporary clinics and the like. In the meantime, we'll know that our tax dollars are in experienced disease-naming hands, hard at work have fun thinking up a catchy, yet non-stigmatizing, name for whatever's going to kill Grandma. We just hope it doesn't take the kids too.


Comments:
I can only imagine the future with a UN that taxes citizens...
 
It is a terrifying thought.
 
"It was kind of fun."
(I'm shaking my head!)
 
How did we get names for diseases before the UN? Yellow fever is kinda catchy I think, the plague too. Although I've always thought malaria was fairly lame. This ignores the obvious fact that even if they didn't invent a name, the general public is fairly creative and would eventually settle on something quite appropriate without any guidance, but we can't have the general public thought of in any terms other than not quite competent.
 
Exactly, Tommy. We would not want the general public inventing a name like "bird flu" for this disease. That could cause havoc and heartburn amongst the innocent sparrows. It takes high-level public health professionals attending meetings at classy conference centers with open bars funded by the public dollar to accomplish such an important task.

This seems like the Peter Principle and Murphy's Law combined in a grand unified theorem of Bureacratic Unified Losers & Liabilities Spending Huge & Irrational Taxes.

B^U^L^L^S^H^I^T = YTB(Your Tax Bill)
 
So when do we get to start calling this current outbreak of disease the chicken shit?

and am I qualified to name diseases now? Just give me the address of the hotel and point me to the bar. I'm so there.
 
It works for me, Tommy.
 
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