Sick notes

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My ear was recently grabbed by a radio show on how diseases get their names.

The show was the BBC's Word of Mouth presented by Michael Rosen and Laura Wright. The guests were Laura Spinney, author of Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World and Professor Peter Piot, co-discover of Ebola.

Listening, I learned that diseases used to be named after places, often misleadingly. Take 1918’s global pandemic of Spanish flu, for example. It got its name because during World War I neutral Spain was the only country where the government was honest about the existence of the disease.

The episode also covered new rules drawn up by WHO in 2015 to ensure that disease names are informative, without attaching stigma to particular places or social groups. For example a bacteria that affects the lungs of pregnant women might be called Streptococcal Maternal Respiratory Disease, or SMRD. It would not be called Bromley Breastfeeder's Lung.

However, these rules are regularly flouted – recent newspaper stories about Japanese and Aussie flu show old habits run deep. Ultimately, if a name catches on it is very hard for the authorities to change it.

My novel, The Splits, tells the story of a communicable disease that ramps up to the maximum the anxiety we feel about infection.

In the book, the official name for the disease is Scott-Lapidot Disease (SLD), after two scientists who 'discover' it. I didn’t know it when I made this up, but this is now considered to be in very bad taste - it's the microbiology equivalent of 19th century explorers naming countries after themselves. In the episode, Professor Piot stressed that the discovery of a disease actually involves collaboration on a massive scale.

SLD also, I now realise, isn't informative. It doesn’t tell anybody anything about what causes the disease, who it affects, or how.

If I were going to use WHO's new rules, SLD might be called Severe Contagious Complex Amyloidotic Dissociation, or SCCAD. I’m not sure that has much of a ring to it. If I was going break those rules I might call it Mad Corpse Disease.

Perhaps I’ll play around with these new naming conventions in the next Splits novel. Or perhaps I’ll stick with the visceral, descriptive common name that springs from the lips of some shocked eye-witnesses in the book – the Splits.

It could have had any number of similar names. I actually quite liked 'the Cold' but that's already taken! 'The Pressure' or 'the Hate' might have worked. But the Splits captured both the physical and psychological manifestation of the disease, so that was what I went with.

If you read the book, you’ll see 'the Splits' say more about the disease than SLD, SCCAD  - or even Mad Corpse Disease - ever could.