The public health community has many capabilities. Reading the room is not one of them.
Professionals in the field of identifying the source of infectious diseases and preventing their regional and global spread say that monkeypox and geographically labeled variants need a new name because of the vague origin of the latest outbreak of the virus.
The World Health Organization (WHO) agrees, saying this week it would immediately start looking for a less offensive name.
“The WHO is also working with partners and experts around the world to change the name of the monkey virus, its clades and the disease it causes,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a news conference on Tuesday. “We’ll be announcing new names as soon as possible.”
His comments came just days after an international letter from an international collection of infectious disease researchers called for “neutral, non-discriminatory and non-discriminatory”. [sic] the term monkeypox and the designation scheme that refuses to use the clades “West Africa” and “Central Africa” or “Congo Basin”.
“In the context of the current global outbreak, the reference and constant nomenclature of this virus being African is not only correct, it is also discriminatory and stigmatizing,” these researchers wrote.
Their letter makes a special exception to the use of photographs showing African monkey-pox patients to portray the effects of the disease in the media. And while they admit that the origins of today’s global outbreak are still unknown, these researchers say the use of African-named clades hides the fact that it has taken much longer than expected to “cross the continent, cryptic human transmission.” .
The change of name would address the possible narrative “among the many scientists who are trying to link the current media presence and global presence with Africa or West Africa or Nigeria”, they wrote.
Until this latest outbreak around the world, monkeypox was the most infected person in Africa, often after contact with infected animals, including rodents and monkeys. According to the WHO, the first non-African outbreak did not occur until 2003, when infected rodents imported from Ghana into the United States caused an outbreak of 70 people.
The African origin and dominance of the virus, and the fact that primates can spread it to humans, seems to be a justification for casual observers to continue with the original ape name and specific African clades. The rarity of cases outside of Africa may also explain why images of African monkey patients predominate in the media. If images of non-African monkey pox patients were more common, it may be debated whether to ignore African victims of the disease.
Naming the places where the disease was found has been controversial among public health professionals for years. The letter from the aforementioned researchers refers to a 2015 WHO document outlining good practices for naming new human infectious diseases. The document specifically recommends not using places, animals, and occupations to name new diseases, and cites the monkey as an example of a poorly named disease.
However, the WHO Good Practice Document also recommends not trying to change the name of diseases that are already common in circulation. This would recommend removing the already well-established monkey sheath.
The letter from the researcher proposes the creation of the hMPXV placeholder instead of monkeypox, and the “West Africa” and “Central Africa” clades A.1, A.2, etc. replace it with charming names.
This also goes against the conclusion of a working group convened by the WHO to designate COVID variants. The group recommends not making alphanumeric naming schemes, as they “cause complex names that can be misrepresented and misunderstood.”
The argument that naming variants by geographical location is stigmatizing and discriminatory is also flawed. Researchers say it is inappropriate because we do not know the origin of this latest occurrence. However, as the origin is now a mystery, it seems too early to change the name in advance to prevent African associations, and if anything, it is designed to promote an alternative story of non-African origin for this latest appearance.
Renaming viruses and variants to avoid stigmatizing countries and regions did not work very well during the time of COVID. When South African researchers discovered a new variant of COVID, the White House of Biden sharply cited it not as a South African variant, but as B.1.1.529 or Omicron. He also quickly banned travel from the country.
While the geographical names of the diseases may complicate the work of some tourism office officials, it does not seem as detrimental to the reputation of a country or region as some public health officials say. People are still ready to take a holiday in Barcelona, despite the fact that the Spanish flu killed more people than Kaiser.
Monkeypox’s sudden concern ignores its main utility: it’s a fun sound, and therefore memorable. Its uniqueness encourages people to pay attention to the virus, which is what public health officials want. In fact, the fact that there has been a lot of coverage around the world, but relatively small, is likely to have something to do with the name. If so, the name encourages people to pay too much attention to the disease, hence all the “don’t be frightened by the monkey-throat” articles. Are public health officials suddenly concerned because they show great caution in the face of a contagious disease?
Finally, the fact that the name monkeypox is under discussion is due to a public health failure. Public bureaucracy is largely about controlling disease and influencing global outbreaks. This was not the case with monkeypox, a well-known disease that has spread worldwide.
How he got there is still a mystery. Instead of breaking that case, some public health officials seem to be waking up to play with word games.