Photo: Pablo Blazquez Dominguez (Getty Images)
An emerging disease should get a new coat of paint. Officials at the World Health Organization announced this week that they will soon be choosing a different name for the disease known as monkeypox – one intended to avoid the stigma and inaccuracy of its current moniker. The name of the virus behind the disease, also known as monkeypox, may change as well, but that decision must be made formally 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 was an inappropriate name for the virus and disease, especially given 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 clear that it can occasionally infect and sicken humans as well. But it is believed that the natural hosts of the virus are rodents. And until recently, human outbreaks have been limited to certain parts of Africa and largely driven by animal-to-human transmission. However, this year the virus has infected at least hundreds of people in over two dozen countries, and there is strong evidence of ongoing human-to-human transmission. And the genetic signature of the virus found in these more recent outbreaks suggests it’s been circulating outside of Africa longer than we’ve known.
Public health experts are still hoping the virus can be contained before it takes root in new parts of the world. But the scientists behind the virological paper say the version of monkeypox now spreading worldwide should no longer be viewed as an “African” disease or implied, such as by media images showing only its defining symptoms in African residents. As such, they are calling for a name and future labeling that is “neutral, non-discriminatory and non-stigmatizing.”
For example, there are currently two known evolutionary branches of the virus, also known as clades. These groups have been termed “Congo” and “West African” clades after they were first identified (the current global outbreaks are caused by “West African” tribes). The scientists proposed renaming the clades as clades 1, 2, and 3, with 2 and 3 representing what was formerly known as the “West African” clade. As a placeholder for the virus migrating around the globe, they offered “human monkeypox,” or hMPXV.
At the time of the paper’s publication, the authors noted that they were in contact with the WHO about a name change. And on Tuesday WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced that the WHO is working on a new name for the disease. The WHO in particular has made it official policy since 2015 to avoid naming diseases that could negatively impact geographic regions, people or economic sectors, such as “Spanish flu” – the imprecise nickname given to the influenza virus after the year 1918 became pandemic (Spain was only the first country to report cases comprehensively and not the place of origin).
The WHO’s new labeling of monkeypox will no doubt be followed by countries and public health organizations around the world. But importantly, the agency isn’t responsible for designating a virus’s formal scientific name — that’s a matter for the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV), which is headed by virologists in the field. And the names chosen by the WHO and ICTV can often be different. Covid-19, for example, is the name of the disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, although the WHO and public health organizations sometimes use the shorthand of calling it the Covid-19 virus. The authors of the virological paper say they have also been in talks with ICTV, 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’ll likely hear it a lot more in the near future. Next week is the WHO convocation a meeting to decide whether this year’s outbreaks should be classified as a public health emergency of international concern – a warning last called out because of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.