Last month, reports swirled that the World Health Organization (WHO) was planning to change the name of monkeypox to something less potentially stigmatizing.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, had said during a June press briefing that the agency was working with experts to change the name, which was expected to come after an emergency meeting focused on the virus not long thereafter.
That meeting came and went, with no reference to any discussion around a name change. (The meeting was also called to consider declaring the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern, but that didn’t happen until a follow-up meeting last week.)
During a briefing today, however, WHO officials addressed questions about the name change, and implied that it may be a long road ahead for any such change.
Rosamund Lewis, MD, technical lead for monkeypox at WHO, said the renaming of the virus itself lies with the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV), which has “already embarked on conversations with their orthopoxvirus group on whether there will be any modifications to not only the name of the monkeypox virus, but … there are many other poxviruses that carry similar names that have been known for a long time.”
WHO is responsible for naming the disease, she said, “which has existed already in the International Classification of Diseases for some time.”
“There is a process that we have initiated,” she said, “and welcome all proposals as to what the new name might be.”
Soumya Swaminathan, MD, chief scientist at WHO, said a few years ago the agency adopted a revised procedure aimed at overcoming the history of naming disease by where it was first detected. That means there are standard rules now in the naming of a disease, she said.
A call has been put out for suggestions, and a committee will then consider those suggestions, she said.
“As far as I know, we have not received any proposals for a name to replace monkeypox,” she said.
Michael Ryan, MD, executive director for health emergencies at WHO, said that in general, the name of a disease is not the problem: “It’s the weaponization of these names, the use of these names in the pejorative; it is the targeted manipulation of the implications of what these names mean.”
“No matter what names we use, if people are determined to misuse and weaponize names in order to isolate or discriminate or stigmatize people, that will always continue,” he said.
He acknowledged that there are “racist connotations that come from some of this, and we have to call that out.”
“I think the international scientific community has a lot of work to do, to the extent possible, to take those opportunities away,” he said. “But [the name] in itself is not the problem.”
Ashwin Vasan, MD, PhD, New York City Health Commissioner, wrote a letter yesterday to Ghebreyesus calling for WHO to rename monkeypox: “We have a growing concern for the potentially devastating and stigmatizing effects that the messaging around the ‘monkeypox’ virus can have on these already vulnerable communities.”
Vasan called monkeypox a “misnomer,” as it “did not originate in monkeys and was classified as such due to an infection seen in research primates.”
“We know such alternative terminology is possible and entities are starting to use terms such as ‘hMPXV’ and ‘MPV,'” he wrote.
Vasan noted that early misinformation about HIV/AIDS “led people to believe it was spread to humans after people in Africa engaged in sexual activity with monkeys. This kind of false messaging created incalculable harm and stigma for decades to come. Continuing to use the term ‘monkeypox’ to describe the current outbreak may reignite these traumatic feelings of racism and stigma.”
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