WHO considers renaming monkeypox virus to minimise stigma, racism

More than 30 international scientists said last week that the monkeypox label was discriminatory and stigmatising. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - The World Health Organisation (WHO) will officially rename monkeypox, in light of concerns about stigma and racism surrounding the virus that has infected over 1,600 people in more than two dozen countries.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO's director-general, announced on Tuesday (June 14) that the organisation was "working with partners and experts from around the world on changing the name of monkeypox virus, its clades and the disease it causes".

He said the WHO would make announcements about the new names as soon as possible.

More than 30 international scientists said last week that the monkeypox label was discriminatory and stigmatising, and that there was an "urgent" need to rename it.

The current name does not fit with WHO guidelines that recommend avoiding geographic regions and animal names, a spokesman said.

The proposal echoes a similar controversy that erupted when the WHO moved quickly to rename SARS-CoV-2 after people around the world referred to it as the China or Wuhan virus in the absence of an 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 outbreak, continued reference to, and nomenclature of this virus being African is not only inaccurate but is also discriminatory and stigmatising," the scientists' group said in a letter online.

The WHO is consulting experts in orthopoxviruses - the family to which monkeypox belongs - on more appropriate names, a spokesman said.

Other disease names that run counter to the guidelines include swine flu, according to joint recommendations from the WHO, the World Organisation for Animal Health and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.

Naming diseases "should be done with the aim to minimise the negative impact", the spokesman said in an e-mail, "and avoid causing offence to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups".

Monkeypox has been endemic in West and Central Africa for decades, but cases have primarily been associated with spillover from animals, rather than human-to-human transmission.

In past outbreaks outside African countries, such as in the United States in 2003, cases were linked to contact with animals carrying the virus, or travel to regions where it is endemic.

While it is still unclear how monkeypox entered humans in the current outbreak, the virus has been spreading through close, intimate contact - a change from earlier episodes.

Other groups have warned of stigma in communication about monkeypox. In late May, the Foreign Press Association of Africa asked western media to stop using photos of Black people to highlight what the condition looks like in stories about the US or Britain.

In the weeks since, scientists have also raised the point that the lesions patients are presenting with in this current outbreak have, in many cases, been distinct from what has been historically documented in Africa.

"As any other disease, it can occur in any region in the world and afflict anyone, regardless of race or ethnicity," the group wrote. "As such, we believe that no race or skin complexion should be the face of this disease."

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