Health & Science

Mpox: new name for monkeypox recommended by WHO to avoid stigma and racist comments

Mpox will be the new name used instead of monkeypox by the World Health Organization to avoid stigma and racist comments.

Brick-shaped monkeypox virions, the extracellular forms of a virus
Brick-shaped monkeypox virions, the extracellular forms of a virus | © NIAID Integrated Research Facility

The World Health Organization on November 28 recommended a new name for monkeypox disease. In its statement, the United Nations health agency explained it will start using the new term “mpox” as a synonym for monkeypox.

Monkeypox will be still be used simultaneously but will be phased out in one year and be completely replaced by mpox. This delay is meant to avoid confusion during the current outbreak and to give time to update communications and the International Classification of Diseases

When the outbreak of monkeypox started earlier in 2022, the WHO noted it received reports of “racist and stigmatizing language online, in other settings and in some communities.”

The reason for the change is in part because critics say the name is misleading, since monkeys are not the original animal host. The name can be perceived as pejorative.

A group of leading scientists wrote a position paper in June calling for a name that was “neutral, non-discriminatory and non-stigmatizing” amid fears the name can be used in a racist way, according to Reuters.

The mpox used to spread in countries in west and central Africa until this year. But 110 countries have reported about 80,000 confirmed cases and 55 deaths in total so far, according to the WHO. Mpox also circulated a lot among the gay community.

The process to change the name of a disease can take several years. There was already a process underway to reconsider the naming of all orthopoxvirus species before 2022, including monkeypox virus, but it has been accelerated in this case.

To chose the new name, the WHO held consultations with experts, countries and the general public. The public is usually not involved in the process but the WHO this time opened up the process last August.

The new name has been chosen considering “rationale, scientific appropriateness, extent of current usage, pronounceability, usability in different languages, absence of geographical or zoological references, and the ease of retrieval of historical scientific information.”

Since 2015, the WHO published best practices to name a disease. According to the guidelines, a new disease name should be given with the aim to “minimize unnecessary negative impact of names on trade, travel, tourism or animal welfare, and avoid causing offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups.”

This new term only applies to English language for now as translations are usually discussed with national relevant government authorities and the related scientific societies. But the term mpox can be used in other languages, the WHO notes.

The name for human monkeypox was given in 1970 because the virus that causes the disease was discovered in captive monkeys in 1958.

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