What's in a Name?

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Image credit: Pixabay.

Imagine a new flu virus is sweeping the country. You’re a public health communications expert at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s your job to improve public safety by increasing the vaccination rate. So how do you get people to take this virus seriously? 

One important step: creating a layman’s term for the disease to use in your public communications. This name will be picked up and circulated by the media, directly affecting how people perceive the flu. So what do you call the flu? And how will this name influence the actions people take?

A team of scientists in several countries, spearheaded by the University of Iowa, research exactly this. In a recent study, they developed three fictional flu names to compare the public’s reaction to each. They created these names using common flu naming conventions (usually based on unique attributes of the virus). Flu viruses are typically named after either the strain’s surface protein (e.g. H1N1), the strain’s geographical origin (e.g. Spanish flu), or after the animal in which the infection is typically found (e.g. bird flu). In this study, the researchers created three names for their fictional disease: H11N3 influenza, Yarraman flu, and horse flu.

More than 16,500 participants read one of three randomly-assigned news articles. The articles were identical except for which flu name was used. Then, the participants responded to questions about their level of concern and likelihood of getting vaccinated.

The study’s findings, recently published in the Emerging Infectious Diseases journal, showed that participants who read about horse flu reported less concern and motivation to get vaccinated than the other groups.

Researchers offered one possible explanation. Using an animal name like horse flu may lead people to think – incorrectly – that exposure to horses is necessary for transmission. This misunderstanding could lead people to underestimate the severity or likelihood of contracting the disease and  – again, incorrectly –view the vaccine as unnecessary.

What (not) to name a virus is certainly one takeaway from this study. The larger lesson, however, is that the words we use to describe scientific research matter.

Science and health communications have a significant impact on human health – and can even be a matter of life and death. Disseminating important information shouldn’t be left to personal preferences or guesswork. As scientists and practitioners, we can and should apply the same principles of experimentation and analysis we’d use in a laboratory to the words we use to talk about research, gaining insights and data to inform our decisions and practices.

In the words of one of Shakespeare’s most famous characters, “What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Alas, dear Juliet, names do matter. And science can help us find the most effective ones.

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