Monkeypox stigma and racism set to end by renaming to mpox, WHO reports

November 28, 2022 - 4 minutes
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The World Health Organisation (WHO) said today (November 28) it will begin using mpox, as a synonym for monkeypox.

The organization confirmed that both names will be used simultaneously for a year while monkeypox is phased out. This is because of stigmatizing language and monkeypox racism that was appearing online.

Some communities observed and reported derogatory language, racism and stigmatism when the outbreak of monkeypox expanded earlier this year.

Changing the name of monkeypox because of racism

Assistant professor, Brian Labus, at the school of public health at the University of Nevada, said it was ’embarrassing’.

He said: “It’s about time. It’s embarrassing that we have to change the name of a virus because of racism and even more embarrassing that it has taken six months to do so. We should be concentrating our efforts on controlling this outbreak but have to spend time on things like this instead.

“Scientifically, it is a good idea as the name monkeypox creates a misunderstanding about where the disease comes from. This is a disease of rodents that was discovered when it infected a few laboratory monkeys in 1958. Monkeys have never been the reservoir for this disease. It would make just as little sense to call it humanpox.”

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Consultations to gather views

A number of people from various countries raised their concerns. They asked WHO to come up with a way forward to change the name. It is the organisation’s responsibility to give names to new, and on very rare occasions, to existing diseases. The WHO Family of International Health Related Classifications through a consultative process which includes WHO Member States.

WHO, in accordance with the ICD update process, held consultations to gather views from a range of experts. Countries and the general public were invited to submit suggestions to rename monkeypox.

These consultations and discussions with WHO’s director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO recommends the adoption of the new synonym mpox in English for the disease.

Mpox to replace monkeypox name

Mpox will become a preferred term, replacing monkeypox after a transition period of one year. WHO said this serves to mitigate the concerns from experts about confusion of a name change during a global outbreak. It says it also gives time to complete the ICD update process and to update WHO publications.

The synonym mpox will be included in the ICD-10 online in the coming days. It will part of the official 2023 release of ICD-11, the current global standard for health data.

The term monkeypox will remain a searchable term in ICD to match historic information.

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ICD updating process

Considerations for the recommendations included rationale, scientific appropriateness, extent of current usage. Also included were pronounceability and usability in different languages. The absence of geographical or zoological references, and the ease of retrieval of historical scientific information were also considered.

The ICD updating process can usually take up to several years. In this case it was accelerated while still following the standard steps.

A number of advisory bodies were heard during the consultation process. This included experts from the medical and scientific and classification and statistics advisory committees which constituted of representatives from government authorities of 45 different countries.

Negative impact of monkeypox

The issue of the use of the new name in different languages was extensively discussed.  The preferred term mpox can be used in other languages.

Labus added: “This is not the first time we have changed the name of a disease, often because of stigma and racism. AIDS was initially called gay-related immune deficiency (GRID), but much of the damage had been done by the time the name was changed. More recently, the repeated use of the name “China Virus” by the president helped fan the flames of anti-Asian racism before the virus was officially named SARS-CoV-2.

“We have also renamed viruses because they created an inaccurate understanding of disease transmission. In 2009, we renamed “swine flu” to 2009 H1N1. Although the human virus had genetic origins in viruses that circulated in pigs, there was no risk of infection from the pigs themselves. It didn’t help that it caused a major drop in pork prices worldwide as well.”

Minimize negative impact

If additional naming issues arise, these will be addressed via the same mechanism. Translations are usually discussed in formal collaboration with relevant government authorities and the related scientific societies.

WHO will adopt the term mpox in its communications, and encourages others to follow these recommendations. It says this will minimize ongoing negative impact of the current name monkeypox and from adoption of the new name.

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