A reader named Kellene said she keeps seeing stories about Ebola and West Nile virus. She wrote, “I noticed that they’re capitalized. But why? Not every disease is.”
Diseases Named After Regions Are Capitalized
Ebola is the name of a river in Zaire,* and it was near the Ebola River that the virus first caused disease in humans. Thus, the disease became known as the Ebola virus.
West Nile in West Nile virus is capitalized for a similar reason: It was first found in a patient in the West Nile district of northern Uganda.
Diseases named after people or regions are capitalized.
Diseases Named After People Are Capitalized
Some disease names are capitalized because they are named after the person who discovered them. For example, Alzheimer’s disease is named after a German doctor named Alois Alzheimer. Other disease names are capitalized because they’re named after a person who had the disease, such as Lou Gehrig’s disease, which is also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS.
Alzheimer’s Disease Versus Alzheimer Disease?
Apostrophes are a related topic: When people start thinking about disease names, they often wonder why some have apostrophes and some don’t, and why you sometimes see the same name written both with and without an apostrophe.
You sometimes see disease names such as Alzheimer (without the apostrophe) because there is a movement to omit the apostrophe from names based on the name of the doctor who discovered the disease. Some patient advocacy groups say that the apostrophe implies the disease belongs to the physician and that such names are inappropriate.
On the other hand, the argument that an apostrophe means the doctors own the disease is linguistically simplistic, and the sentiment isn't universal among advocacy groups. For example, the British Alzheimer’s Society makes its opinion clear. Their website reads: “Alzheimer’s is often misspelt without an apostrophe which is incorrect….”
*When the Ebola virus was discovered, the country was called Zaire. Today, it is called the Democratic Republic of the Congo.