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Monkeypox: Why does the WHO consider its name to be discriminatory?

The World Health Organization (WHO) is considering changing the official name of monkeypox, in light of concerns about stigma and racism surrounding the virus that has infected nearly 1,300 people in more than two dozen countries.

More of 30 international scientists said last week that the monkeypox label is discriminatory and stigmatizing, and there is a need “urgent” to change the name.

The current name does not fit the WHO guidelines they recommend avoiding geographic regions and animal names, a spokesman said.

The proposal echoes a similar controversy that erupted when the WHO moved quickly to change the name of SARS-CoV-2 after people around the world referred to it as the China or Wuhan virus in the absence of an official designation. The actual animal source of monkeypox, which has been found in a wide variety of mammals, remains unknown.

“In the context of the current global outbreak, the continued reference and nomenclature that this virus is African is not only inaccurate, but also discriminatory and stigmatizing,” the group of scientists said in an online letter.

WHO is consulting experts on orthopoxviruses, the family to which monkeypox belongs, about more appropriate names, a spokesman said. Other disease names that go against the guidelines include swine flu, according to joint recommendations from the WHO, the World Organization for Animal Health and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Naming diseases “should be done with the aim of minimizing negative impact,” the spokesperson said in an email, “and to avoid offending any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic group.”

Monkeypox has been endemic in West and Central Africa for decades, but cases have been associated primarily with contagion from animals, rather than person-to-person transmission. In previous outbreaks outside of African countries, such as in the United States in 2003, cases have been linked to contact with animals carrying the virus or travel to regions where it is endemic.

While it remains unclear how monkeypox entered humans in the current outbreak, the virus has been spreading through close and intimate contact, a change from previous episodes.

Other groups have warned about stigma in communication about monkeypox. In late May, the African Foreign Press Association called on Western media to stop using photos of black people to highlight how the condition is seen in stories about the United States or the United Kingdom. In the weeks since, scientists have also raised the point that the lesions presented by patients in this current outbreak have, in many cases, been different from what has been historically documented in Africa.

“What any other disease, it can occur in any region of the world and affect anyone, regardless of race or ethnicity,” the group wrote. “As such, we believe that no one race or skin complexion should be the face of this disease.”

Scientists at the WHO and other institutions have noted that there had been little international attention to the virus until it spread to countries outside of Africa. Every case of monkeypox “must be treated with the same care and sense of urgency as those now occurring in European countries and North America,” the group of 30 scientists said in their letter last week.

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