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WHO renames monkeypox as mpox, citing racist stigma

Monkeypox is getting a new name: mpox. Here, monkeypox virus particles (orange) are seen within an infected cell (green), after being cultured in a laboratory. The image was produced by a colorized transmission electron micrograph.
NIH-NIAID/IMAGE POINT FR/BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Monkeypox is getting a new name: mpox. Here, monkeypox virus particles (orange) are seen within an infected cell (green), after being cultured in a laboratory. The image was produced by a colorized transmission electron micrograph.

Monkeypox disease now has a new name: mpox. The World Health Organization announced the long-awaited change on Monday, saying the disease's original name plays into "racist and stigmatizing language."

But it will take time to replace a term that has been used for decades. The first human monkeypox case was recorded in 1970. The virus was initially detected years earlier, in captive monkeys.

"Both names will be used simultaneously for one year while 'monkeypox' is phased out," WHO said.

The announcement drew a mixed response from Dr. Ifeanyi Nsofor, a global health equity advocate and senior New Voices fellow at the Aspen Institute who has backed changing the name.

"Mpox is better than monkeypox because it still contains 'pox', which speaks to the physical nature of the disease," Nsofor told NPR on Monday. "Removing 'monkey' removes the stigma that monkeypox comes with and deals with the possible misinformation" about how it's transmitted, he added, as it might falsely suggest monkeys are the main source of spreading the virus to humans.

But Nsofor questioned the WHO's decision not to eradicate the monkeypox name immediately. The agency says the one-year delay will provide time for numerous publications and records to be updated. It also says the delay will ease experts' concerns about potential confusion over renaming a disease that's currently causing an outbreak.

Nsofor warns that using both names at the same time will not bring clarity. "This is confusing and perpetuates everything bad with the name monkeypox," he said.

Monkeypox outbreak brought waves of stigma

The international monkeypox outbreak drastically raised the disease's profile in Europe and the U.S., affecting more than 100 countries in all. And as the disease spread, public health experts say, so did the use of discriminatory language and images online.

Critics say the name "monkeypox" plays into racist stereotypes about Black and African people, and it's been used along with anti-gay slurs. They also note that rodents, not monkeys, are the main source of the virus.

In May, international journalists in Kenya called out U.S. and European media outlets for repeatedly using images of Black people to illustrate stories about monkeypox — despite the outbreak's fast growth in Europe and the U.S. In July, U.S. health officials urged people not to "propagate homophobic or transphobic messaging."

Over the summer, New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Ashwin Vasa senta letter to WHO's Tedros, urging him to act quickly to rename monkeypox, citing "potentially devastating and stigmatizing effects."

A name change that isn't a total name change

The change resolves months of doubt about when — or if — it might happen.

But while the new name will apply to the disease, it doesn't automatically extend to the virus behind the illness. While WHO names diseases, the formal scientific names of viruses are determined by another organization: the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses.

The WHO says the ICTV has been engaged in a process of considering renaming "all orthopoxvirus species, including monkeypox virus," adding that the process is ongoing.

Reached by NPR on Monday, ICTV data secretary Elliot Lefkowitz said the group has "held no recent discussions regarding the renaming of the virus species, Monkeypox virus," or the use of an alternative name.

Earlier this year, Lefkowitz said that even if the ICTV gives the virus a new formal name, the term "monkey" could remain, stating, "the consensus is that use of the name 'monkey' is sufficiently separated from any pejorative context such that there is no reason for any change."

Lefkowitz also said he agreed with WHO's executive director for health emergencies, Mike Ryan — who has said that in the face of an outbreak, the central issue isn't the disease's name, but the risk that people with bad intentions might "weaponize" any term.

"No matter what names we use, if people are determined to misuse and to weaponize names in order to isolate or discriminate or stigmatize people, then that will always continue," Ryan said in July.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.