Why monkeypox may soon get a new name

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Why monkeypox may soon get a new name

Why monkeypox may soon get a new name
Monkeypox may soon have a new name after scientists called for a change to dispel the stereotype that Africa is the disease's crucible.

The World Health Organization announced last week that it is "working with partners and experts from around the world to change the name of the monkeypox virus, its clades and the disease it causes."

The monkeypox virus clades, which are the different branches of the virus' family tree, are particularly controversial because they are named after African regions.

Last year, WHO officially named the Covid 19 variants after Greek letters to avoid stigmatizing the places where they were first discovered.

Just days before WHO announced it would change the name of the monkeypox virus, a group of 29 scientists wrote a letter saying there was an "urgent need for non-discriminatory and non-stigmatizing nomenclature" for the virus.

The letter, signed by several prominent African scientists, calls for changing the names of the "West African" and "Central African" or "Congo Basin" monkeypox clades.

Until a few months ago, monkeypox was largely confined to West and Central Africa.

But since May, a new version has spread across much of the world. The letter's signatories proposed naming this version as a new clade and giving it the placeholder designation "hMPXV" - for human monkeypox virus.

Of the more than 2,100 monkeypox cases recorded worldwide this year, 84 percent occurred in Europe, 12 percent in North and South America and only three percent in Africa, the WHO said last week.

No monkey disease

Oyewale Tomori, a virologist at Redeemer's University in Nigeria, advocated changing the name of the monkeypox clade.

"But even the name monkeypox is aberrant. It's not the right name," he told AFP.

"If I were a monkey, I would protest because it's not really a monkey disease."

The virus was so named after it was first discovered in monkeys in a Danish laboratory in 1958, but humans have mostly contracted it from rodents.

The letter points out that "almost all" outbreaks in Africa have been caused by humans picking up the virus from animals - not from other humans.

But the current outbreak is unusual in that it spreads exclusively through human-to-human transmission, said Olivier Restif, an epidemiologist at the University of Cambridge.

"So it's fair to say that the current outbreak has little to do with Africa, just as the Covid 19 waves and variants we're still plagued by have little to do with the Asian bats from which the virus originally came several years ago."

Stigmatizing Africa

Moses John Bockarie of Njala University in Sierra Leone said he agreed with the call to change the name of monkeypox.

"Monkeys are commonly associated with the global south, particularly Africa," he wrote in The Conversation.

"Moreover, there is a long dark history of comparing black people to monkeys. No disease nomenclature should provide a trigger for this."

Restif said it is "important to emphasize that this debate is part of a larger problem, which is the stigmatization of Africa as a source of disease."

"We saw this most clearly with HIV in the 1980s, with Ebola during the 2013 outbreak and again with Covid-19 and the reactions to the so-called 'South African variants,'" he told AFP.

An African press group has also "expressed displeasure at the media's use of images of black people alongside reports of the monkeypox outbreak in North America and Britain.

"We condemn the perpetuation of this negative stereotype that attributes doom to the African race and privilege or immunity to other races," the Foreign Press Association, Africa tweeted last month.

Restif pointed out that the "old stock photos of African patients" used by the Western media usually show severe symptoms.

However, monkeypox, which is spreading worldwide, is much milder, "which partly explains how easily it can be transmitted," he said.

WHO will announce the new names for monkeypox "as soon as possible," said its chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

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