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 clades of Monkeypox, several branches of the virus’ family tree, are particularly controversial because they are named after regions of Africa.
Last year, the WHO officially named Covid-19 variants after Greek letters to avoid stigmatizing the places where they were first discovered.
Just days before WHO announced it would change monkeypox’s name, a group of 29 scientists wrote a letter saying there is an “urgent need for a non-discriminatory and non-stigmatizing nomenclature” for the virus.
The letter, signed by several leading African scientists, called for the names of the “West African” and the “Central African” or “Congo Basin” monkeypox to be changed.
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 suggested naming this version as a new clade, and giving it “the temporary label hMPXV” – for human monkeypox virus.
Of the more than 2,100 cases of monkeypox recorded worldwide this year, 84 percent were in Europe, 12 percent in the Americas and just three percent in Africa, according to the WHO’s latest update last week.
– ‘No monkey disease’ – Oyewale Tomori, a virologist at Redeemer’s University in Nigeria, said he was in favor of changing the name of the monkeypox clades.
“But even the name Monkeypox is different. 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 is named after it was first discovered in monkeys in a Danish lab in 1958, but humans have most commonly contracted the virus from rodents.
The letter pointed out that “almost all” outbreaks in Africa were caused by people who got the virus from animals — not other people.
But the current outbreak “is unusual because it spreads purely 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 very little to do with Africa, just as the Covid-19 waves and variants that we are still plagued by have little to do with the Asian bats from which the virus came. originally a few years ago.”
– ‘Stigmatizing Africa’ – Moses John Bockarie of Njala University in Sierra Leone said he agreed with the call to change Monkeypox’s name.
“Monkeys are usually associated with the global south, especially Africa,” he wrote in The Conversation.
“In addition, there is a long dark history of comparing black people to apes. No disease nomenclature should be a trigger for this.”
Restif said it was “important to emphasize that this debate is part of a larger problem with stigmatizing Africa as a source of disease.”
“We’ve seen it most prominently 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 its dismay at media using images of black people alongside stories of the monkeypox outbreak in North America and the United Kingdom.
“We condemn the continuation of this negative stereotype that attributes disaster 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 Western media usually show serious symptoms.
But the monkeypox spreading around the world “is much milder, which partly explains how easily it is transmitted,” he said.
The WHO will announce the new names of monkeypox “as soon as possible,” said its chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
The UN agency will also hold an emergency committee meeting Thursday to assess whether the outbreak is a public health emergency of international concern — the highest alarm it can sound.