Alaskapox: Disease Gets New Name To Avoid Stigmatizing US State

Alaskapox, a relative newcomer to the microbiological scene, has been renamed “borealpox”. The decision follows the first human death from the infection, a man from the Kenai Peninsula who succumbed earlier this year, with officials keen to avoid unnecessary stigma against the state where the virus was first identified.

What goes into naming a disease?

Naming a new species, whether it be an animal, plant, or microorganism, is a tricky business. When it comes to species that are pathogenic to humans, the stakes are even higher. 

As the World Health Organization (WHO) explains, the scientific name of an entity that causes disease – be that a virus, bacterium, fungus, or parasite – follows certain international conventions to allow scientists around the world to collaborate on research. 

The name of the disease itself is often different, providing a simpler way of referring to the illness to help with public health messaging. This is why we’ve all spent the last four years talking about “COVID-19” and not “SARS-CoV-2”.

The virus now known as the borealpox virus was documented for the first time in 2015, when it became the newest member of the Orthopoxvirus genus. This means it’s a close relative of smallpox, among the most feared of all human viruses and one of medicine’s greatest success stories. Thankfully, the symptoms of this new infection were nothing like as serious as smallpox, and there’s also no evidence so far that humans can spread the virus to one another. 

But while there have only been seven documented cases to date, the death of an immunocompromised patient in January 2024 brought renewed attention to the little-known disease. Unfortunately, that also included some unwelcome attention for its original namesake state of Alaska.

Why is Alaskapox being renamed?

Naming viruses after geographical locations is an age-old tradition. The Ebola virus, for example, is named after the Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, near to where the first outbreak of the disease occurred. The similar Marburg virus was named for the German city where lab workers fell victim to it, although it also originates as a zoonotic infection in Africa. 

However, in recent years there’s been a drive to move away from this kind of nomenclature, as well as from naming diseases after animals or groups of people.

A good case study for this practice is mpox. Once called monkeypox, a scattering of outbreaks around the world starting in 2022 brought a spike in interest in the disease, and led to calls for a name change, for a few reasons.

For starters, the name “monkeypox” just wasn’t particularly accurate. While there have been documented cases of spillover of the infection from monkeys to humans, epidemiologists pointed out that the majority of human cases were contracted from rodents and small mammals. Concerns were also raised about the use of stigmatizing language when referring to the disease, as well as a disproportionate focus on Africa and overuse of images of African people in media coverage that was actually centered around outbreaks in the US and Europe. 

Similar worries prompted the decision to switch Alaskapox over to its new name. From now on, it will be referred to as borealpox.

“It became clear that the name Alaskapox could be stigmatizing to Alaska,” the virus’s discoverer, Alaska state epidemiologist Joseph McLaughlin, told Science. As well as seeking to avoid a negative impact on the region’s tourist trade, the new name also references the type of ecosystem where the virus has been found rather than a specific place, which could be useful if the virus were to be found outside of Alaska in the future. 

But even this updated name has caused consternation in some quarters. Virologist Rachel Roper told Science it runs the risk of associating the disease in some people’s minds with California’s Boreal Mountain.

Another option might have been to name the disease after one of its reservoir species, like this obscenely cute northern red-backed vole.
Image credit: Christian Schwarz via iNaturalist (CC BY-NC 4.0)

Roper chairs the poxvirus group at the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV), the global authority on virus names. It’s the ICTV that will eventually decide on an official scientific name for this virus – and notably, it decided to stick with “monkeypox” for the causative agent behind the disease the WHO now calls mpox. 

We’ll have to wait and see how the pendulum swings for Alaskapox’s official scientific designation. But, at least in less formal settings, it looks like boreal pox might be here to stay. 

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