Weird History
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The Naming Origins Of Some Of History’s Most Famous Pandemics

Updated July 9, 2020 38.7k views13 items

The COVID-19 pandemic changed the world in countless ways and dragged a decades-old debate about the names of diseases back into the zeitgeist. Each time a worldwide outbreak of illness occurs, there are always scientific names available; however, the public concocts its own names for them, such as the Russian Flu or German Measles (among many others), regardless of how inaccurate or problematic those monikers may be.

This is not the first time the world has been gripped by a global pandemic, nor is it the first time that an illness has been saddled with a region-specific name. In fact, previous instances of this, like the common name for "the Spanish Flu" in 1918, have been used by some to justify their preferred title for the novel coronavirus. Back then, with millions of influenza deaths, the Spanish Flu got its name despite neither originating in Spain nor afflicting that country with the most cases.

But just because these misnomers have happened before doesn’t mean that it should keep happening. As it turns out, there’s a reason humanity has largely decided to stop naming diseases after people and places. 

  • Asian Flu

    When an outbreak of H2N2-type influenza occurred in China in early 1957, and then quickly spread to surrounding countries, the rest of the world wasted no time in dubbing it the "Asian Flu." In this particular case, identifying a pandemic based on its point of origin, rather than its method of transmission, proved dangerous.

    When the spread of H2N2 reached the United States in the summer of 1957, its initial impact was fairly mild and the epidemic was soon thought to be over. When children returned to school the following fall, however, it kicked off a second pandemic wave that claimed tens of thousands more lives.

    By the end of it all, the so-called Asian Flu had taken out approximately 116,000 Americans and more than a million worldwide. North American newspapers made it clear who they thought was to blame, running headlines like “Flu In Ontario Is Asian” and the like.

    The name caught on, and added to what was already a long history of blaming illness outbreaks on Asian immigrants and Asian communities within the United States. Just a few decades prior, US Surgeon General Walter Wyman had described a bubonic plague outbreak in San Francisco as an "Oriental disease, peculiar to rice eaters."

  • Photo: Cynthia Goldsmith, CDC / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Zika Virus

    The Zika virus is named after a specific forest in Uganda, where scientists studying the spread of yellow fever first isolated Zika in a monkey specimen in 1947. Five years later, the first human victims were identified in both Uganda and Tanzania, and the mosquito-borne virus continued to spread from there. The World Health Organization declared a global health emergency in early 2016 after a major outbreak occurred in South America. 

    Prompted by reports of children being born with microcephaly from infected mothers, panic soon hit the North American shores, particularly after Zika showed up in Brazil around the time of the Rio Olympics. The fact that this latest epidemic occurred in Latin America prompted more fear and discrimination in the United States of immigrants from south of the border, despite any evidence connecting the two.

    Once again, the old prejudice about infectious foreigners bringing diseases with them reared its ugly head - only this time the prejudice was directed at both those from the region the virus was named for and those where the outbreak occurred. 

  • The virus that is commonly known as rubella today used to go by a different name, German Measles - and it’s a moniker that’s problematic for multiple reasons. First and foremost, the illness is not related to measles at all. Secondly, the distinction between it, measles, and scarlet fever was made by German physician George de Maton in 1814, which inspired the nickname.

    Yes, a German doctor did the world a favor by discovering that rubella was not the same thing as measles - and he was rewarded by the rest of the world calling it “German Measles.” And if evidence is needed that this moniker led to the virus being associated with German people, consider that Americans started referring to it as "Liberty Measles" amid a wave of anti-German sentiment at the onset of WWI.

    De Maton’s suggested name for the virus was “Rötheln,” but that didn’t prove nearly as catchy as German Measles. Even when an English doctor, Henry Veale, came up with the term “rubella” in 1866, it took decades for it to become widely adopted.

  • Hong Kong Flu

    The H3N2 influenza outbreak of 1968 came to be known as the “Hong Kong Flu” after first being identified in Hong Kong in July of that year. However, most believe that it actually evolved from the same strain that caused the 1957 pandemic. Within weeks, the illness had spread well beyond the region. 

    This particular pandemic had a unique path, traveling throughout Asia and then to the United States via soldiers returning from Vietnam. It then made its way from the US over the ocean and throughout Europe.

    Fortunately, the outbreak resulted in fewer fatalities than previous influenza incidents - between 1 and 4 million worldwide. Unfortunately, its nickname led to more of the same anti-Asian discrimination that had occurred during the 1957 pandemic.