An emerging disease is set to get a new coat of paint. Officials at the World Health Organisation announced this week that they will soon choose a different name for the disease known as monkeypox — one intended to avoid the stigmatization and inaccuracy of its current moniker. The name of the virus behind the disease, also called monkeypox, may change as well, but that decision will have to formally be made by a separate group.
Last week, a group of international scientists published a lengthy paper on the open-access site Virological asking for the change. They argued that monkeypox is an ill-fitting name for the virus and disease, especially in light of its recent global outbreaks that began to be noticed this year.
The virus was first discovered in monkeys in the 1950s, and by the 1970s, it became apparent that it could infect and sicken humans occasionally as well. But the virus’s natural hosts are actually thought to be rodents. And up until recently, human outbreaks have been limited to certain parts of Africa and fuelled largely by animal-to-human transmission. This year, however, the virus has infected at least hundreds of people in over two dozen countries and there is clear evidence of sustained human-to-human transmission. And the genetic signature of the virus found in these newer outbreaks suggests that it’s been circulating outside Africa for longer than we knew.
Public health experts are still hoping that the virus can be contained before it establishes itself in new parts of the world. But the scientists behind the Virological paper say that the version of monkeypox now spreading globally should no longer be considered or implied to be an “African” disease, such as through media images that only depict its rashy symptoms on African residents. Thus, they’ve called for a name and future labelling that is “neutral, non-discriminatory and non-stigmatizing.”
Currently, for instance, there are two known evolutionary branches of the virus, also known as clades. These groups have been called the “Congo” and “West African” clades, after where they were first identified (the current global outbreaks are caused by “West African” strains). The scientists proposed that the clades should be renamed to clades 1, 2, and 3, with 2 and 3 representing what used to be known as the “West African” clade. As a placeholder label for the virus that’s travelling around the globe, they offered “human monkeypox”, or hMPXV.
At the time of the paper, the authors noted that they had been in contact with the WHO regarding a name change. And on Tuesday, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced that the WHO was working on a new name for the disease. Notably, the WHO has made it a formal policy since 2015 to avoid names for diseases that might have negative effects on geographical regions, people, or economical sectors, such as “Spanish flu” — the inaccurate nickname given to the influenza virus behind the 1918 pandemic (Spain was merely the first country to widely report cases and not where it originated).
The WHO’s new labelling of monkeypox will undoubtedly be followed by countries and public health organisations around the world. But importantly, the agency is not responsible for designating the formal scientific name of a virus — that’s up to the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV), which is helmed by virologists in the field. And the names chosen by the WHO and ICTV can often differ. COVID-19, for instance, is the name of the disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, though the WHO and public health organisations will sometimes use the shorthand of calling it the covid-19 virus. The authors of the Virological paper say they’ve been in discussions with the ICTV as well, and the WHO and ICTV may very well announce their respective name changes at the same time, as they did with COVID-19/SARS-CoV-2.
Whether the new name for monkeypox ends up being, we’re likely to keep hearing it a lot in the near future. Next week, the WHO is convening a meeting to decide whether the outbreaks this year should be designated a public health emergency of international concern — an alert that was last called for the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.