Misleading and stigmatizing: the name monkeypox is about to change

Monkeypox, which after long containment in Africa has now spread to about 40 countries, will soon have a different name. The World Health Organization (WHO) intends to change its name, which is considered misleading and discriminatory.

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WHO is considering “changing the name of the monkeypox virus,” World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said last week, promising “announcements as soon as possible” on the matter. .

Beyond the individual virus, it would also, and above all, involve changing the name of its various strains, as well as that of the disease itself.

Why this change at a time when monkeypox has been spotted in more than 40 countries and could soon be declared an international emergency by the WHO?

The latter did not openly explain the reasons for its decision, but it would come after multiple concerns about stigmatizing terms for African countries.

This consideration mainly concerns the strains of the virus. They are actually named after regions or countries in Africa: we are talking about the tribe of West Africa and that of the Congo Basin, the latter being much deadlier than its cousin.

In early June, some thirty scholars, many from Africa, wrote to a forum calling for these names to be changed, citing the urgent need to “establish a nomenclature that is neither discriminatory nor stigmatizing”.

A new name would acknowledge the current reality of the disease. While this was long limited to ten African countries, this year 84% of new cases were detected in Europe and 12% in the Americas.

Then why not limit ourselves to changing the names of the tribes and continuing to speak of “monkeypox”? First because it is misleading.

unfortunate associations

The current outbreak shows that the new strain is more easily transmitted from one human to another than in Africa, where recorded cases are most often due to animal contamination.

First of all, even originally, “it’s not really a disease associated with monkeys,” notes virologist Oyewale Tomori to AFP.

This name is inherited from the conditions under which the disease was discovered in the 1950s: Danish researchers had discovered it in monkeys in their laboratory. But in real life, it is usually caught by rodents.

Alongside this misleading side, there are again concerns about the stigmatizing nature of such a name.

“Monkeys are generally associated with countries in the South, particularly Africa,” researcher Moses John Bockarie recalled in The Conversation.

These concerns are part of a broader context in which Africa has often been targeted as a source of diseases that have spread around the world.

“We saw that particularly with AIDS in the 1980s, with Ebola during the 2013 epidemic, then with Covid and the supposed ‘South African variants’,” notes epidemiologist Oliver Restif to AFP.

Therefore, the image is also important. Mr Restif regrets that the media have often chosen unfortunate illustrations for their articles on monkeypox.

These are often “old photographs of African patients,” while the current cases are “much less serious,” he notes.

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