If you think ‘chikungunya virus’ sounds odd, check out these other virus names

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A story by Thomas Maugh reports on a big step toward a vaccine for the chikungunya virus, which, as his article explains, is an emerging mosquito-borne virus that causes severe arthritis and has spread to 18 countries. Health experts are worried about its potential for further spread.

The name is curious -- according to a scholarly article in the journal PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases, ‘it derives its name Chikungunya, meaning ‘he who walks bent over’ in the Kimakonde language of Mozambique ' -- an allusion to the gait of the people who succumb to it.

Odd names for viruses abound: Maugh’s article also refers to the o’nyong-nyong virus -- which, according to a research paper in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, ‘first appeared as a noticeable disease entity among the Acholi people of northwestern Uganda in February 1959. Locally, the disease was called ‘o’nyongnyong,’ meaning very painful weakening of joints.’

Between being named in exotic languages, after places where they were found, or after what they infect, viruses end up with all sorts of odd monikers. Plus, as we learned from The Big Picture Book of Viruses, an online compendium complete with pictures, there are a great many of them. (Who would have thought that microscopic blobs could be so varied?)


Take a look if you’ve time to spare. Read about Sunday Canyon virus, the Bluetongue viruses, the Orf virus and the Autographa californica nucleopolyhedrovirus (or AcMNPV, for those in the know). There’s a lot of ‘nucleocapsids filamentous (tubular); cross-banded’ kind of talk, but some of the pictures are lovely. (The bacteria-infecting Myoviridae are particularly fine ... an example.)

-- Rosie Mestel