The World Health Organization is considering an official name change for monkeypox in light of concerns about stigma and racism surrounding the virus which has infected nearly 1,300 people in more than two dozen countries.
More than 30 international scientists said last week that the monkeypox label was discriminatory and stigmatizing, and that it was “urgent” to rename it. The current name does not align with WHO guidelines that recommend avoiding geographic regions and animal names, a spokesperson said.
The proposal echoes a similar controversy that erupted when the WHO moved quickly to rename SARS-CoV-2 after people around the world called it the China or Wuhan virus in the absence of official designation. The actual animal source of monkeypox, which has been found in a wide variety of mammals, remains unknown.
“In the context of the current global epidemic, the continued reference and nomenclature of this virus being African is not only inaccurate, but also discriminatory and stigmatizing,” the group of scientists said in an online letter.
The WHO is consulting experts in orthopoxviruses – the family to which monkeypox belongs – on more appropriate names, a spokesperson said. Other disease names that go against the guidelines include swine flu, according to joint recommendations from WHO, the World Organization for Animal Health and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. farming.
The naming of diseases “should be done with the aim of minimizing the negative impact,” the spokesperson said in an email, “and to avoid offending any cultural, social, national, regional, professional groups or ethnic”.
Monkeypox has been endemic in West and Central Africa for decades, but cases have mostly been associated with animal spillovers rather than human-to-human transmission. In past outbreaks outside of African countries, such as in the United States in 2003, cases have been linked to contact with animals carrying the virus or travel to areas where it is endemic. Although it is still unclear how monkeypox entered humans in the current outbreak, the virus was spread through close, intimate contact – a change from previous episodes.
Other groups have warned of stigma in communication about monkeypox. In late May, the Foreign Press Association of Africa called on Western media to stop using photos of black people to highlight what the condition looks like in stories about the US or UK. In the weeks that followed, scientists also raised the fact that the lesions that patients present in this current outbreak have, in many cases, been distinct from what has been historically documented in Africa.
“Like any other disease, it can occur in any part of the world and affect anyone, regardless of race or ethnicity,” the group wrote. “As such, we believe that no race or skin tone should be the face of this disease.”
Scientists from the WHO and other institutions have stressed there was little international attention to the virus until it spread to countries outside Africa. Each case of monkeypox “should be treated with the same attention and sense of urgency as those currently plaguing European countries and North America,” the group of 30 scientists said in their letter last week.