12 Diseases and the Lucky Places They’re Named For


Map image via Shutterstock

This isn't exactly what tourism bureaus want you to picture when you hear a town or region's name.

1. Guinea Worm

A parasitic nematode several feet long, European explorers named it for the Guinea coast of West Africa in the 17th Century. It's the stuff of nightmares. Eggs in stagnant water are eaten by water fleas, which get swallowed by a human drinking water. They mature in the human's gut, then mate. The female burrows to the lower leg and emerges. The burning sensation drives the victim to put his or her legs in the water. The worm lays her eggs and the cycle is repeated. Fortunately, it's easily prevented with a simple drinking filter, and it's on track to be exterminated within the next decade.

2. West Nile Virus

Another mosquito-borne form of encephalitis, this was discovered in the West Nile District of Uganda in 1937 and has probably been around since antiquity. It created quite a stir in 1999 when it showed up in the Americas. Humans, horses, and birds are all significantly affected by the virus, and it is mostly transmitted by Culex pipiens mosquitos. A vaccine exists for horses, but not yet for humans.

3. German Measles

Also called Rubella, this gets its popular name because it was German physicians who first described it in the 1700s. It is seldom lethal but was a major cause of miscarriage and birth defects such as blindness prior to widespread vaccination; during the rubella pandemic of the 1960s, there were about 11,000 miscarriages and 20,000 cases of congenital rubella syndrome in newborns; New York state alone saw CRS in 1% of live births. A vaccine was introduced in 1969.

During World War I, some in the United States tried to combat the Germans by renaming German measles "liberty measles."

4. Ross River Fever

This flu-like disease first caused an outbreak in New South Wales, Australia, in 1928; the culprit was identified in 1959 in a mosquito collected on the Ross River. It is spread by several species of mosquito, and also affects animals such as kangaroos. It's rarely fatal, but there is some evidence it may cause meningitis occasionally.

5. Omsk Hemorrhagic Fever

This severe tick-borne disease was first found in the 1940s in Omsk, Russia. Its primary hosts are the water vole and the muskrat, but ticks can transmit it to humans and other mammals. It can also be transmitted through milk and through contaminated water. Symptoms include fever, headache, muscle pain, low blood pressure, anemia, low platelet counts, severe bleeding, and encephalitis.

6. Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever

Named for the Ebola River in Zaire in 1976, this family of hemorrhagic viruses are often shockingly lethal; some outbreaks have had over 90% fatality rates. Incubation lasts from under two weeks to nearly a month, after which flu-like symptoms develop and gradually worsen. Death is usually due to multiple organ failure due to low blood pressure, tissue necroses, and a very frightening condition called disseminated intravascular coagulation in which the blood's clotting mechanisms completely break down.

7. Marburg Virus Disease

A viral hemorrhagic fever very similar to Ebola, this was named for Marburg, Germany, in 1967. It has likely been in Africa for a long time, but 1967 is when workers in a vaccine manufacturing lab were preparing specimens of monkey tissues and were unwittingly exposed. Seven people died out of 31 infected in that outbreak alone.

8. Lassa Fever

Another hemorrhagic fever, first identified in Lassa, Nigeria, in 1969, this mostly hangs out in mice and is transmitted in their droppings. It will, however, infect any human tissue it encounters. 80% of cases are asymptomatic, but 20% are severe, and it kills about 5,000 people in Africa every year.

9. La Crosse Encephalitis

Discovered in La Crosse, Wisconsin, in 1963, this disease is transmitted by the "treebole mosquito," which lays its eggs in stagnant water. It can survive a cold winter by transmitting from the female mosquito into her eggs, which lie dormant until the spring thaw. It's not usually fatal, but can cause severe brain damage.

10. St. Louis Encephalitis

In 1933 in St. Louis, Missouri, an encephalitis epidemic exploded, with over a thousand cases reported. The virus causing it turned out to live naturally in migratory birds without sickening them. It can be transmitted to humans by Culex mosquitos, causing encephalitis that ranges from mild to life-threatening.

11. Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever

Named for the Rocky Mountains but widespread in North America, this tick-borne bacterial infection is very dangerous, killing up to 5% of infected patients even with advanced treatment. It's transmitted by the dog tick and the wood tick. Symptoms include sudden fever, headache, muscle pain, and rash.

12. Lyme Disease

And as Kathy discussed last week, the name "Lyme disease" has Connecticut roots. While this disease has been present for thousands of years, it wasn’t until a large outbreak of cases in the Connecticut towns of Lyme and Old Lyme during the 1970s that the full syndrome was recognized.