The World Health Organization (WHO) on Tuesday announced it will rename monkeypox over concerns from scientists that the name is "discriminatory and stigmatizing."
Monkeypox is rarely seen outside of West and Central Africa, where it is endemic, but since mid-May more than 1,600 cases have been reported in 39 countries. In the United States, there are currently 72 confirmed and suspected monkeypox cases across 17 states and the District of Columbia.
In response to the growing outbreak and its subsequent media coverage, a group of over 30 scientists last week published a position paper saying there is an "urgent need" to change the name of the monkeypox virus, including its viral clades (West Africa and Congo Basin), to combat racism and stigma.
"The prevailing perception in the international media and scientific literature is that [monkeypox virus] is endemic in people in some African countries," the scientists wrote. "In the context of the current global outbreak, continued reference to, and nomenclature of this virus being African is not only inaccurate but is also discriminatory and stigmatizing."
In the paper, the scientists proposed "a novel classification of MPXV [monkeypox virus] that is non-discriminatory and non-stigmatizing and aligned with best practices in naming of infectious diseases in a way that minimizes unnecessary negative impacts on nations, geographic regions, economies and people and that considers the evolution and spread of the virus."
In particular, the scientists suggested using a numbering system for monkeypox's viral clades instead of geographic names. "The hope is that just having this neutral 1, 2, 3 [system] we'd have a more accurate breakdown that isn't tied to where this was sampled in the past," said Richard Neher, an associate professor at the University of Basel in Switzerland, who was one of the proposal's signatories.
According to Bloomberg/TIME, other groups have also warned against the media's portrayal of monkeypox, particularly the images used to show infected patients and their symptoms. For example, the Foreign Press Association of Africa has asked western media to stop using photos of African patients to highlight outbreaks in Europe and the United States.
"We find that very discriminatory, we find that very stigmatizing and to some extent … I find it very racist," said Christian Happi, director of the African Center of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases at Redeemer's University in Nigeria. "The mainstream media, instead of showing pictures of people that are presenting with the lesions, which are white men, they keep putting forward pictures of children in Africa and Africans. And there's no connection."
WHO on Tuesday announced it will change the name of the monkeypox virus amid growing concerns about stigma and discrimination. According to a WHO spokesperson, naming diseases "should be done with the aim to minimize the negative impact and avoid causing offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups."
Currently, WHO is "working with partners and experts from around the world on changing the name of monkeypox virus, its clades and the disease it causes," said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. "We will make announcements about the new names as soon as possible.”
To rename monkeypox's viral clades, WHO and the scientific community can simply agree on replacement terms before using them in official statements, scientific papers, and interviews with the media—a similar process to how the Greek letter naming system for coronavirus variants was developed.
However, WHO does not have the power to rename the virus itself. Instead, the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV), which also named SARS-CoV-2, will have to change the name.
According to Maria van Kerkhove, head of the emerging diseases and zoonoses unit in WHO's health emergencies program, an ICTV subcommittee focused on the poxvirus family, which includes monkeypox, is "discussing renaming pox viruses in the coming months." (Propper, New York Post, 6/14; Chen, Axios, 6/14; Bean, Becker's Hospital Review, 6/14; Branswell, STAT News, 6/11; Muller, Bloomberg/TIME, 6/14)
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