Scientists are renaming viruses like Dengue due to evolving understanding and global health implications.


The late 16th century marked the emergence of a new and mysterious infectious disease that soon spread across various corners of the globe. In places like Philadelphia, Puerto Rico, Java, and Cairo, people began suffering from a peculiar illness characterized by high fever and excruciating body pains, leading them to dub it “break-bone fever” or “quebranta huesos” in Latin America.

Around 30 years later, in 1801, an outbreak in Madrid brought the disease to the attention of a wider audience when María Luisa de Parma, the Queen of Spain at the time, fell ill. As she recuperated, the Queen detailed her symptoms in a letter, using a term that would later become familiar: dengue.

“I’m feeling better, because it has been the fashionable fever, which they call dengue,” she wrote. “Since yesterday I’ve had some bleeding, which is what is causing me discomfort, and after talking for a while, my throat hurts.”

Today, we understand dengue fever as being caused by four closely related viruses belonging to the flavivirus group. These viruses are primarily transmitted by Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquitoes in tropical and subtropical regions worldwide. Dengue outbreaks can occur wherever these vectors thrive, affecting large populations. In the first four months of 2024 alone, over 7.6 million cases of dengue and 3,000 deaths were reported to the World Health Organization (WHO), surpassing the entire year’s total for 2023. By July 2024, WHO surveillance data recorded 9.6 million cases globally and 5,366 deaths, marking the highest incidence on record.

The incidence of dengue has surged in recent years, exacerbated by climate change and the El Niño weather pattern, which have facilitated the spread of mosquitoes carrying the virus to new territories and intensified its transmission. Currently active in 90 countries, with 31 reporting elevated case numbers, the virus has particularly affected the Americas. In June 2024, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a health alert in the United States concerning increased dengue virus infections.

The naming of dengue offers a glimpse into the intriguing world of virus nomenclature, where names often reflect symptoms, geographical locations, or even the animals in which they were first identified. While the precise origin of “dengue” remains somewhat uncertain, it appears linked to its symptoms. Patients experience severe joint and muscle pain, leading to an awkward and painful movement, possibly inspiring terms like “dengue.”

Today, there are about 270 known viruses that infect humans, with new ones like SARS-CoV-2, Zika virus, and Mpox continually emerging. The process of identifying and naming viruses is evolving with advanced analytical techniques, aiming to establish systematic naming systems amid the increasing diversity of known viruses.

Viruses like dengue belong to the group known as viral hemorrhagic fevers (VHFs), many of which spread via mosquito bites, while some are transmitted by ticks or through direct contact with infected bodily fluids. Symptoms include high fever, severe headaches, joint and muscle pain, diarrhea, vomiting, and in severe cases, bleeding and bruising. VHFs encompass notorious diseases like Ebola, Nipah, and Marburg viruses, known for their high fatality rates and severe symptoms.

VHFs often derive from symptomatology, such as with dengue fever. Another example is Yellow Fever, a mosquito-borne VHF that affects the liver and can cause jaundice in patients. However, relying solely on symptoms for naming viruses can be problematic, as similar symptoms may manifest in different infections. For instance, various hepatitis viruses (A, B, C, D, and E) can lead to jaundice, as can infections like Epstein-Barr virus (causing glandular fever) and Rubella virus (causing German measles).

Origins of virus names like dengue provides insight into the historical context and scientific progression of virology. As research and surveillance continue to expand our understanding of viruses, developing standardized naming conventions remains crucial for effective communication and management of emerging infectious diseases.


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