Infectious Diseases

Infectious Disease Names – What Do They Mean?

Author Kristina Symes , 16-10-2020

Table of contents

Medical dictionary with disease names

In the midst of the continuing pandemic, World Dictionary Day seems like the perfect occasion to consider the meaning and origin behind some of the most well-known infectious disease names. We’ve been speaking with Dr. Steve Berger, our co-founder, to learn more.

The Disease Everyone Keeps Talking About – Coronavirus

Let’s start with the obvious one. COVID 19, which began as a localized outbreak of “Novel Coronavirus” infection,  is now a name almost every household in the world will know. COVID-19 comes from COrona VIrus Disease which first appeared in 2019, with the disease itself being caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

SARS was a prominent name back in the early 2000s when it started causing infections around the world, with a simpler acronym Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. 

The names of COVID-19 and SARS-CoV-2 have been used throughout mainstream media drawing attention to contagious diseases, but not without a certain degree of confusion, which is similar to the one sometimes seen with HIV and AIDS. A useful analogy is that the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) causes Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) much like SARS-CoV-2 causes COVID-19.

A lesser-known fact outside of the medical community is that there are many different species of infectious diseases. Each type is given a name derived from the kind of virus it is and often its discovery whereabouts. As of 2020, seven coronavirus species have been associated with human disease:   

  •       HCoV 229E 
  •       HCoV OC43 
  •       SARS-CoV 
  •       HCoV NL63 (New Haven coronavirus) 
  •       HCoV HKU1 
  •       MERS-CoV (the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus) 
  •       SARS-CoV-2 


Names and Types of Infectious Diseases

Not all diseases are given acronyms and the discordance between the name of the virus and the name of the disease is unusual. In many cases, viruses that infect humans are named for the disease that they cause.  For example, poliomyelitis is caused by the poliomyelitis virus, while influenza is caused by the influenza virus

Disease names themselves are typically taken from either the area of the body it affects, where it was discovered, or who discovered it. Sometimes diseases are named for their symptoms or transmission.

For instance, poliovirus’s name is derived from the Ancient Greek poliós, meaning grey, as it attacks nerve cells located in the grey matter at the center of the spinal cord. Influenza originates from the Italian term for influence. It was believed the illness was caused by ill omens from the sky, just as it was thought that another infectious disease, malaria, was caused by foul swamp air (mala aria).

Even the current pandemic has symbolic origins for its name, as the virus resembles a crown (Latin, corona) under the electron microscope. Similarly, rotavirus, a common cause of childhood diarrhea, resembles small wheels (Latin, rota). 

The Ebola disease, on the other hand, takes its name from the village it was first discovered, near the Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1976. Likewise, the West Nile virus was first identified in the West Nile District of Uganda in 1937; and the Zika virus in the Zika Forest of Uganda during the 1940s. Two of the coronaviruses identified this year are named after the places they were first reported in New Haven, Connecticut, and the Middle East.

Of course, these aren’t the only diseases of note or the only ones with interesting names, here is a list of some other interesting infectious diseases: 


A Double-edged Sword

The naming of a pathogen for the region it was discovered in can be stigmatizing and have geopolitical ramifications. The World Health Organization made a point to exclude the terms “Wuhan” and “China” when naming the current pandemic disease. Even the naming of disease after the discovering professional, or in someone else’s honor can be considered contentious, as is the case with Listeria. 

Listeria, found in contaminated food, was named after Joseph Lister, who pioneered hospital health standards throughout his career. He championed the use of early antiseptics, and even such novel ideas as washing hands. Imagine needing to justify the benefits of cleanliness in a hospital! However, during his career, Lister was shunned for his approach despite proving it hugely successful in preventing surgical mortality. 

Would you consider it an honor to have your name immortalized in the naming of a species, even if it is a bacteria? 

The GIDEON Way: Improving Public Health

GIDEON is one of the most well-known and comprehensive global databases for infectious diseases. Data is refreshed daily, and the GIDEON API allows medical professionals and researchers access to a continuous stream of data. Whether your research involves quantifying data, learning about specific microbes, or testing out differential diagnosis tools– GIDEON has you covered with a program that has met standards for accessibility excellence.

Kristina Symes

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