The World Health Organisation (WHO) announced on Monday that it would start using the term “mpox” for monkeypox, which has infected about 80,000 people in the first major outbreak of the viral disease outside Africa that began early this summer. The disease spread mainly in the Americas including the United States and Europe, primarily among men who have sex with men (MSM).
The change of name, announced after a series of consultations with global experts, has been provoked by the racist connotations that “monkeypox” sometimes carries. Both names will be used simultaneously for one year while “monkeypox” is phased out, the WHO said.
“When the outbreak of monkeypox expanded earlier this year, racist and stigmatizing language online, in other settings and in some communities was observed and reported to WHO. In several meetings, public and private, a number of individuals and countries raised concerns and asked WHO to propose a way forward to change the name,” the WHO said in a news release.
In fact, monkeypox, which was named in 1970 because the virus that causes the disease was first discovered in captive monkeys in 1958, does not have much to do with monkeys. The most likely reservoir for the virus, which has circulated for several years in a few central African countries after jumping to humans through zoonosis in the bush, are rodents.
This year’s outbreak mainly among MSM has increased the marginalisation of the community that has traditionally been stigmatised for its association with HIV and AIDS.
The WHO said that assigning names to new and, in some cases, existing diseases is the responsibility of the global body under the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) and the WHO Family of International Health Related Classifications through a consultative process which includes WHO Member States. In the case of monkeypox, the process was accelerated, the release said.
According to WHO best practices, “new disease names should be given with the aim to minimize unnecessary negative impact of names on trade, travel, tourism or animal welfare, and avoid causing offence to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups”.
The release said “various advisory bodies were heard during the consultation process, including experts from the medical and scientific and classification and statistics advisory committees which constituted representatives from government authorities of 45 different countries”.