The World Health Organization (WHO) has officially announced a new name for monkeypox in a bid to tackle “racist and stigmatizing language”. The WHO said it wanted to change its name back in June, and they’ve finally settled on “mpox” after a series of consultations with global experts.
“WHO will begin using a new preferred term 'mpox' as a synonym for monkeypox. Both names will be used simultaneously for one year while “monkeypox” is phased out,” the WHO said in a statement.
Earlier this year, dozens of scientists wrote an open letter expressing the “urgent need” to change the language around the monkeypox virus, arguing it could foster discrimination against people. They also mentioned the continued reference to Africa (where it is endemic) and the use of images of African people in media coverage of the current outbreak in Europe and the US.
The WHO says they’ve listened to those worries and reacted. They added, “When the outbreak of monkeypox expanded earlier this year, racist and stigmatizing language online, in other settings and in some communities was observed and reported to WHO. In several meetings, public and private, a number of individuals and countries raised concerns and asked WHO to propose a way forward to change the name”.
It used to be commonplace to name diseases after place names (for instance, the Spanish flu, the West Nile virus, etc) or animals (swine flu, chickenpox, etc). However, in recent years, the WHO has refreshed its policy of naming diseases and edged away from this approach.
This is because the names often poorly reflect the true nature of the disease and can promote discrimination toward people. For instance, monkeypox is caused normally by spill-over events to humans from animals such as rodents, squirrels, and — to a lesser extent — monkeys. Equally, people in Europe and North America infected with the “West African clade” of the virus most likely have very little to do with this part of the world.
By moving toward a neutral name for the disease, the WHO hopes to reduce some of the preconceptions and assumptions that could hamper efforts to contain the infections as smoothly as possible.