Infectious Disease

WHO renames monkeypox to avoid racist, stigmatizing connotations

November 28, 2022

3 min read

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WHO on Monday announced it will start using the term “mpox” to refer to monkeypox disease, citing “racist and stigmatizing language” used during this year’s global outbreak as a reason.

WHO will use both monkeypox and mpox over the next year, phasing out use of the name given to the disease after it was discovered in captive monkeys in 1958.

Monkeypox_Micro_CDC

WHO announced that it will begin using the name “mpox” to refer to the disease known as monkeypox. Source: CDC

The agency said it consulted with global experts in medicine and science, representatives from government authorities in 45 different nations and the general public before making the decision.

WHO is responsible under the International Classification of Diseases for assigning names to new — and occasionally existing — diseases. It cannot rename the virus that causes mpox. That would fall to the International Committee on the Taxonomy of Viruses.

“WHO will adopt the term mpox in its communications and encourages others to follow these recommendations to minimize any ongoing negative impact of the current name and from adoptions of the new name,” WHO said in a press release.

Human mpox was first identified in humans in an outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 2 years after smallpox had been eliminated in the region. Outbreaks of the virus were limited to 11 African nations until 2003, when an outbreak in the United States was linked to contact with infected pet prairie dogs.

A global outbreak spread to the US earlier this year, peaking in August. Currently, the CDC reports that there have been 29,248 cases in the US and 14 deaths. Overall, the agency has tracked 80,899 cases globally.

“We welcome the change by the World Health Organization,” US Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra said in a press release. “We must do all we can to break down barriers to public health, and reducing stigma associated with disease is one critical step in our work to end mpox.”

HHS said it will adopt the new term in correspondence with the nation’s medical community, as well as the public, starting Monday. It said the change is likely to help enhance the US response to the mpox outbreak by “using a term that does not conjure bias or stigma and will aid efforts to reach the most impacted communities with a term for the disease that doesn’t act to marginalize individuals from accessing care.”

WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, MSc, in June said that what seemed like a sudden global outbreak in countries where the disease had not been endemic was likely to have been spreading undetected for some time.

Within weeks of that statement, the global number of cases had doubled and WHO announced it would consider changing the disease’s name because continuous reference to the virus “being African is not only inaccurate but is also discriminatory and stigmatizing. The most obvious manifestation of this is the use of photos of African patients to depict pox lesions in mainstream media in the global north.”

In 2015, WHO established and published a best practices in naming diseases document — long after the term monkeypox had become the standard nomenclature.

The term will be added to the ICD-10 online in the next several days, and will be included in the ICD-11 when it is published next year. In the meantime, the agency said it will start using the term mpox immediately, although “monkeypox” will remain searchable in the ICD to match historic information.

“Usually, the ICD updating process can take up to several years. In this case, the process was accelerated, though following the standard steps,” WHO said.

References:

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