In 2003, the world successfully fought off a new disease that could have become a global catastrophe.
Who coined the term “SARS”?
What were they going to call it? That was the final question for a small group of men huddling in a room here at the headquarters of the World Health Organization (WHO) on the morning of Saturday, 15 March 2003. They were about to issue a second global alert on a serious new disease that was spreading rapidly, and it needed a name.
A new statement, in which then-WHO Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland described the disease as a “worldwide health threat,” was about to be sent to the press. “We had to give the disease a name,” says David Heymann, then WHO’s executive director of communicable diseases. “If we hadn’t, the media might have come up with something stigmatizing like Chinese flu.” Heymann wanted a name that rolled off the tongue easily-something like AIDS.
Dick Thompson, a former science reporter for Time who joined WHO as a press officer in 2001, says he eventually coined “severe acute respiratory syndrome” based on what they knew so far. It worked well as an acronym, he said. The alert went out later that morning. The first global health threat of the 21st century had a name: SARS.
Dick Thompson: who’s who?
When veteran Time magazine science reporter and war correspondent Dick Thompson joined the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2001, he didn’t know that the frightening emergence of SARS then avian flu would challenge him to communicate accurate and up-to-date scientific information to reporters 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at news conferences around the globe.
Thompson, based in Geneva, Switzerland, heads the pandemic and outbreak communication team for WHO’s Communicable Diseases Section. He has established outbreak communications practices that are now standard for public health agencies around the world. Thompson has briefed reporters about infectious disease outbreaks in countries including Egypt, Angola, Zanzibar, Indonesia and Thailand. He also is credited with coining the name for severe adult respiratory syndrome or SARS.
Thompson graduated from San Francisco State University in 1978 with a degree in journalism. His first job was with the San Francisco bureau of Time, where he specialized in science, medicine and technology writing. From 1985 to 1986, Thompson attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a Vannevar Bush Fellowship (since renamed the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships). Afterwards, he relocated to Washington, D.C. where he continued covering the politics of science for Time.
“Rarely do you meet anyone who has been the spokesman for a major international agency and a reporter for a major news organization like Time,” said Patricia Thomas, Knight Chair for Health and Medical Journalism at UGA’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. “Dick Thompson sees global health stories from both sides of the transaction, and what he has to say is illuminating for everyone who cares about public health, including scientists, journalists and public relations practitioners.”
Thompson reported on major armed conflicts such the U.S. invasions of Grenada and Panama, the fall of Kabul to the Taliban and the first Gulf War. He spent one year as the South Asia Bureau Chief for Time and often covered the White House under Bill Clinton’s leadership.
His book about predicting volcanic eruptions, called Volcano Cowboys, was published by St. Martin’s Press in 2000.
- Enserink, M. (2013). War Stories. Science, 339(6125), 1264–1268. doi:10.1126/science.339.6125.1264 (p. 1264)