The World Health Organization announced on Monday that it is renaming monkeypox as “mpox,” citing concerns about “racist and stigmatizing language” surrounding the original name of the disease.
The WHO said that mpox is now the preferred term for the virus, but both names will be used simultaneously for one year while the old name is phased out. The agency selected the new name after gathering views from experts and countries as well as the general public, who were able to submit suggestions online.
Why is monkeypox being renamed?
Human monkeypox was first named in 1970, after the virus that causes the disease was discovered in captive monkeys in 1958 — though the origins of the disease are still unknown and the disease has since been identified in a variety of animals other than monkeys.
The WHO said in its news release on Monday that it “very exceptionally” assigns new names to existing diseases. It announced early this summer that it was working on renaming monkeypox after experts and public health officials began calling for a rebrand amid concerns that stigma and discrimination could prevent people from seeking testing, treatment or vaccination for the disease.
In June, a group of researchers published a letter pushing for a name change and decrying the global media’s use of photos of African patients to depict lesions, despite the 2022 outbreak's being present in many countries outside of Africa.
And in July, NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Commissioner Ashwin Vasan wrote a letter to the WHO director-general expressing “serious concern about continuing to exclusively use the term ‘monkeypox’ given the stigma it may engender, and the painful and racist history within which terminology like this is rooted for communities of color.”
"A stigmatizing disease name not only adds to the suffering of those afflicted by or at risk for the disease, but it also makes it more difficult to reach people through public health interventions," Dr. Jessica Justman, an associate professor of epidemiology at Columbia University, said in an email to Yahoo News. "A health crisis can easily become prolonged or more widespread when people are afraid to acknowledge they are infected and hesitant to seek treatment."
Justman pointed out that other diseases have also been rebranded after stigmatizing certain groups. Notably, the acronym AIDS (“acquired immunodeficiency syndrome”) was coined shortly after the terms GRID (“gay-related immune deficiency”) and 4H (or “heroin users, homosexuals, hemophiliacs, and Haitians”) perpetuated homophobic and racist stigmas and gave the false impression that only members of certain groups could contract the disease.
What is mpox?
Mpox is spread through close, intimate contact with an infected person, including through sexual intercourse, kissing, hugging or prolonged face-to-face exposure.
Symptoms include a rash often resembling pimples or blisters that can be itchy or painful, which may be accompanied by flu-like ailments such as a fever, sore throat or cough.
This year there have been over 29,000 confirmed cases in the U.S. and over 80,000 cases worldwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fourteen deaths have been reported in the U.S., though the WHO says that in most cases the disease clears up on its own.
A majority of cases thus far have been among men who have sex with men, but the CDC cautions that anyone in close contact with an infected person is at risk, regardless of sexual orientation. For those susceptible to the disease, including men who have sex with men and transgender and/or nonbinary people, the CDC recommends getting vaccinated against mpox if you have recently been exposed or could be exposed to the virus in the future.