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WHO To Rename Monkeypox To Avoid Discrimination And Confusion

Naming diseases after geographic places and animals can be stigmatizing, scientists say.

author

Tom Hale

Senior Journalist

clockJun 15 2022, 10:57 UTC
Monkeypox
Under a magnification of 500X, this image depicted a section of skin tissue infected with monkeypox virus. Image credit: CDC

The World Health Organization (WHO) is set to establish a new name for monkeypox in the hopes of reducing stigma and confusion around the disease. 

The changes will also apply to the names of the different clades, strains, and genotypes of the monkeypox virus, such as the “West African clade.”

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“WHO is also working with partners and experts from around the world on changing the name of monkeypox virus, its clades, and the disease it causes,” Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, said in a press conference on Tuesday. 

“We will make announcements about the new names as soon as possible."

As of June 8, over 1,285 lab-confirmed cases of the infection have been reported in four WHO regions where monkeypox is not usual or had not previously been reported, primarily in Europe and North America. 

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The name-changing announcement comes less than a week after 30 scientists wrote an open letter expressing the “urgent need” to change the language around the monkeypox virus, arguing it could foster discrimination against people, specifically the continued reference to Africa (where it is endemic) and use of images of African people in media coverage of the current outbreak in Europe and the US. 

“We believe this is an opportunity for a break with the name monkeypox and the historical associations attached to that name,” the letter reads.

“There is an increasing narrative in the media and among many scientists that are trying to link the present global outbreak to Africa or West Africa, or Nigeria. Further, the use of geographical labels for strains of MPXV, specifically, references to the 2022 outbreak as belonging to the “West African” or “Western African” clade, strain, or genotype. We therefore believe that a nomenclature that is neutral, non-discriminatory and non-stigmitizing will be more appropriate for the global health community,” it adds.

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One of the names floated by the letter is “hMPXV,” although there’s no certainty the WHO will agree on this.

In days gone by, it was typical 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.

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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. 


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