“The 360” shows you different perspectives on the main stories and debates of the day.
What is up
At the beginning of the month, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that it will plan rename the disease known as monkeypox and even created a way for the public to weigh on what the disease should be called in the future.
Since the first weeks of the ongoing global monkeypox epidemic, which has led to nearly 50,000 known cases worldwide, many public health experts have been advocating loudly for a new name based on the belief that the term “monkeypox” was misleading and fueled harmful stereotypes. In June, the WHO said it had begun the process of selecting a new label, although it did not give a timetable for when a final choice might be made public.
Monkeypox got its name after it was first discovered by Danish scientists in lab monkeys in 1958. Monkeys are not known to be major carriers of the disease, however. Most cases of transmission from animals to humans are related to rodents. The current outbreak is driven by transmission between men, mainly men who have sex with men.
The effort to rename Monkeypox fits into a much broader campaign in the global health community to shed some of the practices that have historically been used to identify pathogens. Since 2015, the WHO has used a Updated set of naming conventions which specifically prevent the use of geographic titles and species names to “minimize the unnecessary negative impact of disease names.” These rules formally apply only to new diseases that require labeling, such as COVID-19. There are still countless previously known diseases on the books—like chicken pox and Middle East respiratory syndrome—that violate these new practices.
Why there is debate
Experts largely agree that monkeypox is, at best, an imperfect name for the disease, but there is much debate about whether changing its name would have a real effect on the scope of the global outbreak.
The simplest argument used in favor of a name change is that it is confusing and imprecise, since monkeys do not spread the disease and the virus is not isolated to parts of the world where it lives. But the most profound reason that many support a change is their belief that monkeypox promotes a dangerous stigma against African countries where the disease has been endemic and evokes “painful and racist story” of Blacks compared to animals. While experts agree that increasing access to testing, vaccinations and treatment are the most important steps to contain monkeypox, supporters believe that a “non-discriminatory and non-stigmatizing” name would make the public and health officials take the risks of monkeypox more seriously.
But skeptics doubt that giving monkeypox a new name would make much of a difference, and some worry that such moves could sow public confusion. Many experts argue that racist and anti-LGBTQ stigma would exist regardless of the name of the disease. “The name per se is not a major problem. It is the weaponization of these names,” Mike Ryan, a WHO executive in charge of the global emergency response, told reporters last month. There are also practical issues, with some experts worrying how changing the name of a disease that has been documented for more than 60 years could hurt the continuity of scientific research into the disease. Others say it can be nearly impossible to find a unique name that is simple enough to be discussed by the public and not stir up controversy.
Experts say the process of renaming a disease can be painstaking and it could be months, if not years, before monkeypox is officially renamed. Meanwhile, some health authorities have started using their alternatives – California Department of Health It was called MPX and a few other states use it hMPXV. It is not clear whether these names can occur for everyday use.
The current name unfairly directs the blame to poor countries and people of color
“There are no wild non-human primates in Europe. There are many monkeys and apes in Africa, Asia, and in Central and South America. Monkeys are generally associated with the global south, especially Africa. In addition, there is a long dark history of blacks compared to apes. No nomenclature of diseases should provide a trigger for this.” – Moses John Bockarie, Conversation
The name Monkeypox feeds stereotypes of LGBTQ people as “the other”
“I can say, anecdotally, that all my gay friends talk about this threat and take it very seriously. But the name ‘monkeypox’ doesn’t help – it associates the virus with ‘animalistic’ behavior. … Nobody wants to be called a monkey. It’s especially true at this historical moment, as the LGBTQ community sees our hard-fought equality eroded, little by little by bigots.-Jay Michaelson, Everyday beast
Anything that makes it more difficult for vulnerable groups to openly discuss the disease must be remedied
“Because speaking frankly about sexual behaviors is difficult, certainly for men who have long struggled to live in their bodies without apology, this is where our communication becomes deep. … Stigma revolves around this diagnosis. There is no He doesn’t want to. The change starts with what we call this virus.” – Arjun VK Sharma, Boston Globe
A name change would have effects long after the current fire has subsided
“If Monkeypox – or perhaps, MPX – is here to stay, maybe we should all think about how to reduce the impact of its name.” – Hannah Docter-Loeb, Slate
The name is simply inaccurate
“Even the name ‘monkeypox’ is very misleading and problematic. Monkeypox does not come from monkeys; the reservoir for it is in rodents.” – Ranit Mishori, The hill
The name change does not end the fanaticism surrounding the disease
“HIV is no longer called ‘gay-related immune deficiency,’ but gay men are still ostracized for the condition. Connotation outlives denotation. Even COVID-19 – a disease name that was coined from the beginning to be as inoffensive as possible – it can easily be turned into a slur.” – Benjamin Mazer, Atlantic
Labels are not the reason the health response to monkeypox has been so broken
“Currently, the things that really stand in the way of a successful response are just having access to tests, vaccines and treatments. And if these things went well, there wouldn’t be monkey pox to speak of. – Keletso Makofane, public health researcher, at NPR
Renaming a known disease is much more difficult than it seems
“Results that renaming viruses and the diseases they cause is not an easy thing to do. It raises concerns for the continuity of the scientific literature. It can be difficult to find an alternative that does not offend. And something that works in a language or culture cannot work in another. – Helen Branswell, STAT
It will be difficult to find a new name that satisfies everyone
“Leaving the old name is easier than deciding on a new one.” – Brittny Mejia, Los Angeles Times
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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Dado Ruvic/Reuters, Getty Images