Monkeypox will soon be renamed, although it is not yet clear how. The World Health Organization (WHO) announced last week its intention to change the name of this disease spotted in more than 40 countries after having long been contained in Africa. Why this change, at a time when monkeypox could soon be considered an international emergency by the WHO?
Avoid the stigma…
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the WHO, did not openly explain the reasons for his decision. But this would come after multiple concerns about stigmatizing terms for African countries.
This consideration concerns above all the strains of the virus. They are indeed named after regions or countries in Africa: we speak of the strain of West Africa and that of the Congo Basin, the second being much more deadly than its cousin. At the beginning of June, about thirty scientists, many from Africa, thus wrote a forum to ask to change these names, judging it urgent to put in place “a nomenclature which is neither discriminatory nor stigmatizing”.
A new name would acknowledge the current reality of the disease. While this was long limited to ten African countries, 84% of new cases were detected this year in Europe and only 12% on the American continent.
… and confusion
But then, why not limit ourselves to changing the names of the strains and continuing to speak of “monkey pox”? First, because it’s misleading. The current outbreak shows that the new strain is transmitted more easily from one human to another, compared to what is observed in Africa where the recorded cases most often come from contamination by an animal.
Above all, even originally, “it’s not really a disease linked to monkeys”, notes virologist Oyewale Tomori. This name is the legacy of the conditions in which the disease was discovered in the 1950s: Danish researchers had discovered it in monkeys in their laboratory. But, in real life, it is usually caught from rodents.
Alongside this misleading side, there are, again, concerns about the stigmatizing nature of such a name. researcher Moses John Bockarie.
Already in 2015, the WHO noted that the names given to infectious diseases could have serious consequences when they refer to a geographical area or an animal, evoking “brutal reactions against members of certain ethnic or religious communities and “unnecessary slaughter of food animals”. Not to mention the impact on tourism.
We can thus cite the names given to the H1N1 flu (“swine flu”, “Mexican flu”), the Ebola and Zika viruses (which come from a river in the Democratic Republic of Congo and a forest in Uganda) or MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome).
More recently, the WHO decided to replace the names of variants of the Covid-19 virus with Greek letters to again avoid the stigmatization of a location or an ethnic origin. The English variant thus became the Alpha variant, the South African one became Beta, the Indian one became Delta, etc.
These concerns are part of a broader context where Africa has frequently been targeted as the source of diseases that have spread around the world. As such, the image is also important. Epidemiologist Oliver Restif regrets that the media have often chosen unfortunate illustrations for their articles on monkeypox. These are often “old photographs of African patients”, while current cases “are much less serious”, he notes.