We’re now in a monkeypox public health emergency. And while the name seems to hint that monkeys are at fault for all this, that’s far from true.
Monkeypox is a zoonotic disease caused by the very scientific-sounding name Monkeypox virus. But the name itself gives the wrong impression: people did not monkeypox from monkeys, it was just identified in monkeys first. It’s still unclear what animal actually started the spread, though as far as animal transmission goes, the route of concern is rats to humans.
More importantly, many experts argue that “monkeypox,” which has for decades been endemic to regions in Africa—and is now seeing cases rise due to a delayed public health response—carries a stigma. For one thing, “there is a long history of Black people being referred to as monkeys,” says Ifeanyi Nsofor, a public health physician and fellow at the Aspen Institute. The current name “stigmatizes Black people, but in particular stigmatizes Africans.”
In July, the Commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Ashwin Vasan wrote a letter to the World Health Organization, urging them to rename the disease. “Continuing to use the term “monkeypox” to describe the current outbreak may reignite these traumatic feelings of racism and stigma — particularly for Black people and other people of color, as well as members of the LGBTQIA+ communities, and it is possible that they may avoid engaging in vital health care services because of it,” he wrote.
The WHO previously had announced they wanted to rename the virus to try and find something more suitable—an effort that seems to be stalled out, according to reporting from Helen Branswell at Stat News.
We’ve seen disease names carefully chosen before. In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the virus that causes the disease was commonly called the “Wuhan virus,” a reference to where the initial outbreak began. Per WHO guidance, diseases should not be named after geographic locations or groups of people. The official name they came up with for the virus, Sars-CoV-2, was based on its genetic similarity to the virus that caused the 2003 SARS outbreak; then the disease name COVID followed from there. There have even been successes with the renaming of diseases and viruses. For example, before Down’s syndrome was named as such, it was called Mongolism—which was later dropped because it was misleading and offensive. Sin Nombre orthovantirus, was originally called Muerto Canyon hantavirus, after the location where it was found, but was changed after locals objected.
However, renaming a disease is no easy task, especially if the disease has been around for a while. “It’s quite a complex process that involves international classification of diseases, multiple countries, transparency, all of which is appropriate,” Tom Frieden, epidemiologist and president of Resolve to Save Lives, explained. One general problem with renaming, it seems, is that the current name is already well established in scientific literature. Switching things around could be confusing. The WHO Medical and Scientific Advisory Committee is open to changing the name of the disease, but according to Branswell’s writing at Stat, they have yet to receive a proposal for an alternative. So far, it’s looking like another committee, which handles the name for the virus itself, will settle on Orthopoxvirus monkeypox. That … doesn’t seem much better!
One solution available in the meantime is to refer to the virus and illness with letters, rather than the full name. “Use the acronym MPV (short for monkeypox virus) to help reduce stigma and sensationalizing,” advises a fact sheet from GLAAD. “It is acceptable to use the term monkeypox on first mention for context, and then to use MPV thereafter.” GLAAD also suggests MPX as an abbreviation; it’s in use by some doctors and writers.
If monkeypox—or maybe rather, MPX—is here to stay, maybe we all ought to think about how to reduce the impact of its name. As Vasan wrote in his letter to WHO, “The language we use in public health matters, and it has tangible effects on the safety of communities most at risk for poor health outcomes….words can save lives or put them at further risk.”
Correction, Aug. 10, 2022: This piece originally implied that the name for the disease will likely be Orthopoxvirus monkeypox. That will likely be the name for the virus.