by Alanna Shaikh
NTDs annoy me. Seriously, they do. They are screaming evidence of our human attraction to the shiny and dramatic. We don’t get excited about NTDs because they’re not exciting. They are transmitted in complex ways. They’re tricky to explain. They are hard to spell and the toll they take is mostly in suffering, not death. Therefore, we ignore them. Sure, some of the NTDs cost as little as four cents to treat. But why should we do anything? Their names are difficult to pronounce.
I have the solution. Okay, the WHO and USAID want us to work to reduce poverty, build up health systems so poor countries are better prepared to fight NTDs, and use drugs that can treat more than one NTD at a time. But that’s still boring. Who’s going to pay attention to that? Instead, let’s make the NTDs easy to pay attention to. Let’s give them new names.
1) First of all, we should start with the phrase “Neglected Tropical Diseases” itself. That’s not catchy. I suggest “Diseases that might be in hot countries right now, but with global warming they’ll soon be affecting you right there in Minneapolis.” Long, I know, but evocative.
2) Soil transmitted helminth infections. Nobody knows what a helminth is, and they can’t ask, because just trying to say helminth is embarrassing. It makes you sound like you’re lisping. I recommend “scary tiny worms that live in dirt and can also live in your guts.”
3) Lymphatic filariasis. This already has a better name – elephantiasis. But we can take it a step further. How about “Big painful swollen limb disease?”
4) Onchocerciasis. “Messes up your skin really badly and can also blind you disease.” Note my use of the second person to make it feel immediate.
5) Schistosomiasis. “Open sores and swollen organs disease.” I know those are not the only symptoms of schistosomiasis. But they’re the ones you remember.
6) Dracunculiasis. It does remind you of Dracula, which is memorable. But how about “Spend a month pulling a long worm out of a hole in your body disease?” Much more frightening than Dracula. (That’s right, dracunculiasis, aka Guinea Worm, is the one where you can only treat it by pulling it out of your body bit by bit for a month. I get queasy just thinking about it. I will go to PayPal right this second and give a donation if it gets that image out of my head.)
7) Zoonotic helminthiasis. Doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry; which means its awareness potential is pretty much zero. “Tiny worms that live in animal guts and also in yours” is far more likely to lead to useful disease-fighting support.
8) Dengue/Dengue hemorrhagic fever. This is actually a pretty good name. Dengue sounds exotic, but it’s not hard to pronounce. And hemorrhagic fever is quite clear. This name can stay.
9) Rabies. Rabies has pretty good name recognition, but for sheer blood curdling horror, I’d go with “Once you show symptoms it’s too late and you’re doomed even if you know you have it disease.”
10) Yaws. The name just looks like a typo. Not useful. “Skin-Bone-Joint lesions that do permanent damage but can be stopped with a single dose of penicillin disease” would be a more useful name.
11) Leishmaniasis. Sounds somehow canine and doesn’t make you think of anything specific. “Giant sores and organ damage disease” would be far more descriptive.
12) Human African Trypanosomiasis. The old school name, Sleeping Sickness, is a good start, but it doesn’t really convey the seriousness of the disease. I recommend “Sleeping sickness and also it’s fatal if untreated” to really get the point across.
13) Chagas disease. Just makes us all think of French impressionists. Gorgeous stained glass is not a useful image here. Let’s go with “Blood sucking assassin bug disease.” (Yes, seriously, it’s transmitted by assassin bugs.)
14) Buruli ulcer. The name sounds almost pretty. “Rotting skin ulcers that can only be removed with surgery” - not pretty.
I would like us all to start using the new names for the Diseases that might be in hot countries right now, but with global warming they’ll soon be affecting you right there in Minneapolis immediately. I think we’ll see a rapid increase in both public awareness of these diseases as well as government commitment to fight them.