On November 28, the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced "mpox" as the new name for the monkeypox virus, which was quick to spread panic across the world earlier this year, including in India, when the first case was reported in Kerala back in July 2022.
"Following a series of consultations with global experts, WHO will begin using a new preferred term "mpox" as a synonym for monkeypox. Both names will be used simultaneously for one year while "monkeypox" is phased out," the WHO said.
The virus, endemic to central and west Africa is caused by a zoonotic virus in the genus orthopoxvirus in the family of poxviridae. The virus belongs to the same family as the one that causes fatal Smallpox.
The WHO recommended that the name mpox be used for the disease in English. It explained the one-year phase-out time by saying, "This serves to mitigate the concerns raised by experts about confusion caused by a name change in the midst of a global outbreak."
Here's why the WHO decided on changing the name of the virus.
Mpox: Why The New Name?
The WHO said it decided to change the name after the virus was heavily stereotyped with particular communities who also faced racist and homophobic encounters. The WHO observed the concerns raised by individuals from various countries who proposed the organisation change the name.
"When the outbreak of monkeypox expanded earlier this year, racist and stigmatizing language online, in other settings and in some communities was observed and reported to WHO," the global health body said.
The WHO will adopt the term mpox in its communications, and encouraged others to follow suit. This was "to minimize any ongoing negative impact of the current name".
The United Nations too had denounced the "racist" and "homophobic" news coverage of the mpox, warning that "stigmatizing language on Monkeypox jeopardises public health and can "reinforce homophobic and racist stereotypes and exacerbate stigma" towards certain communities.
UNAIDS had said in a statement, "UNAIDS has expressed concern that some public reporting and commentary on Monkeypox has used language and imagery, particularly portrayals of LGBTI and African people, that reinforce homophobic and racist stereotypes and exacerbate stigma. Lessons from the AIDS response show that stigma and blame directed at certain groups of people can rapidly undermine outbreak response."
Therefore, the WHO considered the recommendations that include rationale, scientific appropriateness, the extent of current usage, pronounceability, the term's usage in different languages, avoiding any geographical or zoological references, and the ease of retrieval of historical scientific information.
Racism connected to the name of the disease was also seen during the outbreak of Covid-19 in 2020 when people began to refer to it as the Wuhan Virus or the China Virus. Then US president Donald Trump's usage of the name 'China Virus' for the novel coronavirus was widely criticised because of its racist undertones. Many people of Asian origin were reported to have been verbally or physically attacked in the US because of the suspected origins of Covid.
Mpox Related Racism, Homophobia
During the initial days of the virus' outbreak reportage, the WHO had said that the mpox virus is the most prevalent among a particular network - of men having sex with men (MSM) — therefore asking the community members to take more precautionary measures. This was quick to trigger hostile behaviour towards the LGBTQ+ community. BOOM had reported members of the community saying the statement caused stigma.
While the WHO has a best practices guideline for naming diseases, which was published in 2015, monkeypox was named in 1970. This was after the virus was found in captive monkeys in 1958. The WHO guidelines suggest, "new disease names should be given with the aim to minimize unnecessary negative impact of names on trade, travel, tourism or animal welfare, and avoid causing offence to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups".
Media reportage especially in the Europe and United States had also come under scrutiny during the outbreak of mpox. The Foreign Press Association, Africa had put out a statement in May pointing out that images of black people were being used by the media with monkeypox-related stories. The media body had said, "The Foreign Press Association, Africa registers its displeasure against media outlets using images of black people alongside stories of the #monkeypox outbreak in North America and the United Kingdom."
The statement pointed out that the perpetuation of the negative stereotype "assigns calamity" to the African race while providing privilege and immunity to other races.