The World Health Organization is under pressure to rename the monkeypox virus because of what some scientists describe as its “stigmatizing” name. Photo courtesy of the United States Mission Geneva
Fearing that some people might think a disease called monkeypox is a joke or only affects animals, the World Health Organization has decided to rename the virus that is causing global suffering and now tops 14,100 U.S. cases.
WHO wants public input, and it’s gotten a slew of recent suggestions, from Poxy McPox to bigpox or largepox, as opposed to smallpox. Someone proposed Preben’s orthopox virus, or POV, after Preben von Magnus, the Danish virologist who discovered it.
Many came up with acronyms and the year of outbreak, such as Orthopox MPV22 or mopox-22, and one proposed M58-22PV to include the years of discovery and outbreak.
Shariq Jaffrey from the Ministry of Public Health in Qatar urged POX-2022 or POX-22.
So did Carrie Q. Lemmens of Belgium: “Instead of Monkeypox, why not name it Pox-22, as in Catch-22, but also because it spread this year?” she wrote.
“The process is underway and may take a number of months. We will update the public by the end of the year,” WHO told UPI in an email Thursday.
The timeline isn’t fast enough for some public health officials, though others tell UPI it’s not important to their efforts to manage the outbreak.
“DC Health is always sensitive to any language or terms that can be stigmatizing to a community. We support WHO’s efforts to rename monkeypox and would adopt the new name if approved by the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention],” the District of Columbia Department of Health said in an emailed statement to UPI on Thursday.
The agency added: “However, in our experience, we have not seen this issue significantly impact the public’s reaction to the disease or their desire to understand and contain the outbreak.”
In early June an international group of scientists cited in a paper the “urgent need” for a “non-discriminatory, non-stigmatizing nomenclature” for monkeypox.
“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, said the group, led by Christian Happi, a professor of molecular biology and genomics.
It added: “The most obvious manifestation of this is the use of photos of African patients to depict the pox lesions in mainstream media in the global north.”
Happi also is director of the African Center of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases at Redeemer’s University in Nigeria.
The World Health Organization responded to the scientists June 14, saying it would seek public input for new names for monkeypox.
In late July, New York City’s public health commissioner, Dr. Ashwin Vasan, urged WHO to redouble its efforts, “given the stigma [the virus’s current name] may engender, and the painful and racist history within which terminology like this is rooted for communities of color.”
WHO noted the process consists of considering three aspects: the name of the disease itself, the virus that causes the disease and the virus variants, or clades.
On Aug. 12, WHO said its panel of international experts had agreed to rename the two known clades of monkeypox virus using Roman numerals. The Congo Basin or Central African clade now will be referred to as clade I, while the West African variant will be called clade II.
WHO explained in a news release that day that the monkeypox virus was named when it was discovered in 1958, “before current best practices in naming diseases and viruses were adopted.”
Under current best practice, WHO said, newly identified viruses, related disease and virus variants should be given names “with the aim to avoid causing offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups, and minimize any negative impact on trade, travel, tourism or animal welfare.”
WHO is responsible for assigning new names to existing diseases under the International Classification of Diseases, while the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses is responsible for naming virus species.
A committee member said Monday that a likely species name change still would include the word “monkey.”
“There was already a process underway [at ICTV] to reconsider the naming of all orthopoxvirus species, including monkeypox” before the recent push for a new name arose, WHO told UPI.
WHO said scientists typically debate the naming of variants, or clades, so the health organization expedited the process by convening a meeting of virologists and public health experts to reach consensus on new terminology.
One virologist cited an extreme example from the 1990s, when a hantavirus carried by rodents was discovered in Four Corners, Colo. Scientists wanted to name it the “Four Corners” virus, but the locals balked at the notoriety.
In the end, it was called Sin Nombre orthohantavirus, from the Spanish, with the first two words meaning “without a name.”