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WHO Renaming Monkeypox Amid Concerns Over Racism, Stigma

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus Photo Credit:

The World Health Organization will officially rename monkeypox to make clear that it isn’t African and remove the possibility of offending anyone by making a particular race or skin complexion the face of the disease.

The concerns about racism and stigma are similar to those that convinced the WHO to rename SARS-CoV-2 after it became commonly called the China or Wuhan virus.

With more than 1,600 reported human infections in over two dozen countries, the WHO is “working with partners and experts from around the world on changing the name of monkeypox virus, its clades and the disease it causes,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the organization’s director-general, said Tuesday.

To find a more appropriate name, the WHO is turning to experts in orthopoxviruses — the family to which monkeypox belongs. The goal is to avoid offending any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic group.

The organization is taking other steps, as well, Ghebreyesus said.

"The outbreak of monkeypox is unusual and concerning," the director-general said Tuesday. "For that reason, I have decided to convene the emergency committee under the international health regulations next week to assess whether this outbreak represents a public health emergency of international concern."

The moves come after dozens of international scientists last week declared an “urgent” need to rename monkeypox, calling the label discriminatory and stigmatizing.

It also runs counter to WHO guidelines aimed at avoiding geographic regions and animal names, they said.

“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 group wrote in an online letter.

In addition, the Foreign Press Association of Africa last month asked western media to stop using photos of Black people to illustrate what the virus does to the body.

images of black people in European and North American media stories about monkeypox are “disturbing,” the press association wrote. "As with any other disease, it can occur in any region in the world and afflict anyone, regardless of race or ethnicity.

“Shouldn’t it be logical that if you are talking about the outbreak of monkeypox in Europe or the Americas, you should use images from hospitals across Europe or the Americas?” the group asked.

As of Tuesday, June 14, the CDC had reported 65 monkeypox cases in the U.S., including 15 in California and 11 in New York. The biggest current outbreak – a reported 470 cases – has been in the United Kingdom.

Monkeypox has been found in a wide variety of mammals. The actual source hasn’t been pinpointed.

And although it’s been endemic in west and central Africa for decades, documented cases had involved animal spillover and not transmission between or among humans.

The current outbreak of monkeypox has been spreading through close, intimate contact and not through “passing interactions,” researchers note. It has caused illnesses that last several weeks and rarely has been deadly.

The symptoms are similar to but milder than smallpox, ordinarily involving flu-like symptoms and then a rash that turns into lesions, the Centers for Disease Control reported.

It’s relatively easier to contain – compared to COVID, for instance – because it’s difficult to spread. Many of those identified with monkeypox in the U.S. have been linked to travel to Europe, although the CDC warns that the virus has spread somewhat locally, too.

Scientists discovered monkeypox during two outbreaks of a pox-like disease in monkeys at a research facility in Denmark in 1958, according to the centers. The first human infection was identified in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1970.

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