Misleading and stigmatizing: Monkeypox should change name soon

Monkeypox, which now spreads to about 40 countries after being contained in Africa for a long time, will soon have a different name. The World Health Organization (WHO) intends to change its name, as it is considered misleading and discriminatory.

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WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said last week that the WHO was considering “changing the name of the monkeypox virus”, and promised “announcements as soon as possible” on the point.

In addition to the individual virus, it will also and first of all be a question of modifying the name of its various strains, as well as the name of the disease itself.

Why this change, when monkeypox has been monitored in more than 40 countries and could soon be considered an international emergency by the World Health Organization?

The latter did not explicitly explain the reasons for its decision, but it will come after multiple concerns about the terms of stigmatization of African countries.

This consideration relates above all to the strains of the virus. They are already named after regions or countries in Africa: we are talking about the West African breed and the Congo Basin breed, and the second is much more deadly than its cousin breed.

At the beginning of June, about thirty scholars, many of them from Africa, wrote a forum to demand that these names be changed, deeming it urgent to put in place “a label that is neither discriminatory nor stigmatizing”.

A new name that recognizes the current reality of the disease. While this has long been confined to 10 African countries, 84% of new cases this year have been detected in Europe and 12% in the American continent.

So why don’t we limit ourselves to changing breed names and keep talking about “monkeypox”? First, because it is misleading.

unhappy associations

The current outbreak shows that the new strain is more easily transmitted from human to human, compared to what has been observed in Africa where the recorded cases most often come from contamination by an animal.

Above all, even in origin, “it is not a disease associated with monkeys,” virologist Oweel Tomori points out to AFP.

This name is a legacy of the conditions in which the disease was discovered in the 1950s: Danish researchers discovered it in monkeys in their laboratory. But in real life, they are usually caught by rodents.

Besides this misleading aspect, there are, once again, concerns about the nature and stigma of such a name.

“Apes are generally associated with countries in the south, particularly Africa,” recalls researcher Moses John Bockarie in The Conversation.

These concerns are part of a broader context in which Africa is frequently targeted as a source of diseases that have spread worldwide.

“We saw this particularly with AIDS in the 1980s, Ebola during the 2013 epidemic, and then with Covid and the putative ‘South African variants’,” epidemiologist Oliver Restive told AFP.

As such, the image is also important. Mr. Rostif regrets that the media often choose the unfortunate illustrations of their articles on monkeypox.

He notes that these are often “old photos of African patients”, while the current cases are “much less serious”.

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