3 diseases unfairly named after animals

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared that the name of a disease should avoid “causing offence to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups, and minimise any negative impact on trade, travel, tourism or animal welfare”. It is the last item which interests me and I will mention three diseases unfairly named after animals which, I presume, the WHO, want to be changed.

Chickenpox. Photo: CDC (I changed the background).


This is a virus that was found in monkeys in 1958. It was found in humans in 1970. Apparently, the way the disease spreads has little to do with monkeys. The disease also infects rodents, for example. The problem is that there are reports of monkeys being attacked and poisoned in Brazil simply because of the unfair naming of this disease linking it to monkeys.

This is a rare infection in the UK. It is more commonly found in West and Central Africa. Recently there has been an increase in cases in the UK but the risk of catching it is still low. How do you get it? It is transmitted from person to person through close physical contact with monkeypox blisters or scabs. It can also be transmitted by touching clothing or bedding et cetera used by someone with the disease and finally coughs or sneezes of a person with monkeypox can cause another person to catch the disease.

In Africa the disease can be caught from infected rodents such as mice and rats when they bite a person or if a person touches the animal’s fur, skin, spots, blisters or scabs and, finally, if a person eats the meat of these animals.

Swine flu

The scientific name for swine flu is often shortened to “H1N1”. The term “swine flu” is a popular name for the virus which caused a global flu outbreak i.e. a pandemic in 2009-2010. It is a type of seasonal flu and the annual flu vaccine in the UK inoculate patients against it.

However, swine flu is not transmitted by pigs. It is simply that the virus is similar to one that affects pigs. Once again, the name has had a negative impact as some imports of pork were banned in some countries when there was an outbreak of swine flu in 2009. It is probably fair to say, also, that it attaches a negative connotation to pigs.


People cannot catch chickenpox from chickens. Chickens never have the disease. And, peculiarly, nobody knows why the disease is called chickenpox. It’s been suggested that someone, long ago, when the disease was first discovered, thought that the symptoms which are spots on the skin looks like chickpeas.

Chickenpox is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, the same virus that causes shingles. It is highly contagious causing an itchy, blister-like rash. The disease is also known as varicella.

The last part of the name of this virus i.e. “pox” is derived from the fact that the disease is in the smallpox family. Although, smallpox is a much more serious disease than chickenpox.

Another theory behind the naming of the disease is that the rash looks like a chicken which has pecked itself all over its body.

A further theory is that an 18th-century doctor thought that it was a milder form of smallpox and therefore was a cowardly virus i.e. a chicken!

The disease has been around for centuries and it is believed out it was first taken to America in the 15th century from Europe.

Below are some articles on zoonotic diseases.

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