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What’s in a Name?

Given my career as an infectious disease epidemiologist, and my avid interest in history, I am particularly intrigued about the origin of pathogen names, the impact they have on society, and how history continues to repeat itself.

In the 14th century, before syphilis was named after a literary character with the disease, countries at war named the disease after their enemies; Russians referred to the disease as the “Polish Disease,” the Polish called it the “German Disease,” and Italians called it the “French Disease.” This practice of naming a disease after a country and blaming its residents for its spread had the intended effect of promoting hostility and divisiveness. Unfortunately, the previous US President evoked the same hostile reaction when he referred to the SARS-CoV-2 virus as the “China Virus” and “Wuhan Virus,” which has resulted in significant anti-Asian discrimination, harassment, and violence.


In the 20th century, newly discovered pathogens were often named based on the population impacted by the initial outbreak; for example, Legionella pneumophila, which was discovered to be the bacteria behind an outbreak among attendees at an American Legion convention in 1976. Diseases were also named based upon the small geographic area where cases were first reported, including Lyme disease in Lyme, Connecticut; Norovirus in Norwalk, Ohio; and Pontiac fever in Pontiac, Michigan. Similarly, the Ebola virus was named after an outbreak in 1976 near the Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of Congo.


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