Stigma, Racism Fuel Need to Rename Monkeypox Virus: Health Experts

Public health and scientific organizations are considering renaming monkeypox after African scientists and others argued the current name of the virus is stigmatizing and is hampering the response to the current outbreak of the illness.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is evaluating a formal name change for monkeypox, a spokesperson told Bloomberg on Monday. There have been nearly 1,300 confirmed cases of monkeypox, a virus typically seen in Central and West Africa, in over two dozen countries. As the U.S. and Europe have seen rare cases of the virus, scientists are calling for a change in how the virus is labeled.

A group of scientists, many based in Africa, on Friday issued a position paper calling for a "neutral" classification that recognizes "spillover" in northern countries that minimizes unnecessary negative impacts on nations, geographic regions, economies and people.

"We propose a novel non-discriminatory & non-stigmatizing classification of monkeypox aligned with best practices in naming infectious diseases to minimize negative impacts on nations, economies & people and consider the evolution & spread of the virus," Tulio de Oliveira, director of the Centre for Epidemic Response & Innovation at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, said in a tweet.

Health Workers Screen for Monkeypox in India
Health and scientific groups might rename monkeypox after some argue the name carries a stigma and hinders outbreak response. There have been nearly 1,300 confirmed cases. Above, health workers screen passengers arriving from abroad for monkeypox symptoms at Anna International Airport terminal in Chennai, India, on June 3, 2022. ARUN SANKAR/Getty Images

The WHO's own guidelines discourage naming diseases after geographic areas, people's names or animals. The guidelines point out that "once disease names are established in common usage through the Internet and social media, they are difficult to change, even if an inappropriate name is being used."

The American Society for Microbiology issued a statement last year also discouraging naming diseases based on location, saying that doing so could fuel conspiracy theories or racial bias.

The scientists said in the paper that the "prevailing perception" in international media and scientific literature is that the monkeypox virus is confined to people in some African countries. However, the scientists said that prior the current outbreak, spread of the virus has been from "spillover" from animals to humans and "only rarely have there been reports of sustained human-to-human transmissions."

"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," the scientists said in the paper.

The paper referenced a recent statement from the Foreign Press Association, Africa that called on media outlets to stop using stock images of people with dark complexions to depict outbreaks of the disease in places like the U.K. or North America.

The International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses is also considering renaming pox viruses that could include monkeypox, reported STAT.

Newsweek has reached out to the WHO for comment.