The World Health Organization has said it will rename monkeypox to avoid discrimination and stigmatisation as the virus continues to spread among people in an unprecedented global outbreak of the disease.
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director general, said the organisation was “working with partners and experts from around the world on changing the name of the monkeypox virus, its clades and the disease it causes”.
The move comes after scientists called for an “urgent” change to the name which they described as “inaccurate”, “discriminatory” and “stigmatising” in a report released last week. An announcement on the new name would be made “as soon as possible”, said Tedros.
Similar concerns were raised at the height of the coronavirus pandemic when new Covid variants were named after the countries or regions where they were first detected, leading to travel bans and other restrictions. In response, the WHO brought in a naming system that referred to new variants as letters of the Greek alphabet.
In the report, the scientists raise concerns that the “prevailing perception” in the media and scientific literature is that monkeypox virus is endemic in humans in some African countries, whereas the virus is overwhelmingly found in animals, which have historically sparked occasional outbreaks when they infect people.
The scientists warn of “an increasing narrative in the media and among many scientists that are trying to link the present global outbreak to Africa or west Africa, or Nigeria”. While the UK Health Security Agency first raised the alarm after a person with monkeypox arrived in London from Nigeria on 4 May, the virus had already been spreading for some time, predominantly among men who have sex with men.
The WHO currently refers to two types of monkeypox, namely the “west African” and the “Congo basin (central African)” clades. This year’s outbreak is driven by the former type, which is substantially less dangerous than the latter.
“In the context of the current global outbreak, continued reference to, and nomenclature of this virus being African is not only inaccurate but is also discriminatory and stigmatising,” the experts write. They go on to criticise the use of photos of African patients with pox lesions in coverage of the outbreak in the global north.
In the report, the scientists use the name “hMPXV” for human monkeypox virus as a placeholder to distinguish the virus driving the current international outbreak in humans from the virus most commonly found in animals.
On Wednesday, the WHO’s Europe director, Dr Hans Kluge, said the magnitude of the outbreak “poses a real risk”, telling a media briefing: “The longer the virus circulates, the more it will extend its reach and the stronger the disease’s foothold will get in non-endemic countries. He called on “governments, health partners and civil society” to “act with urgency” to “control this outbreak”.
At the same briefing, Steve Taylor, a board member at European Pride, said LGBTQ+ events must not be closed down in light of the outbreak, but instead used to spread public health messages about monkeypox. He said about 750 Pride events were due to take place in Europe this summer.
“We have been working with the WHO over recent weeks to develop our messages and we will encourage Pride organisations across Europe to use their events to raise awareness of the facts about monkeypox so that people can protect themselves,” he said. “Sadly, but entirely predictably, some of those who oppose Pride and who oppose equality and human rights have already been attempting to use monkeypox as a justification for calls for Pride to be banned.
“We are pleased the WHO guidance is clear that Pride and major events should not be affected and are, in fact, opportunities to share important public health messaging,” he added.
The UKHSA announced 52 more cases of monkeypox in England on Wednesday, one more in Scotland and a further case in Wales, bringing the UK total to 524 as of 14 June. More than 1,800 cases of monkeypox have now been confirmed in dozens of countries outside Africa in the latest outbreak.
The UKHSA urged people to contact a sexual health clinic if they developed a rash with blisters and they had been in close contact, including sexual contact, with someone who has or might have had monkeypox in the past three weeks, or had been to west or central Africa in the past three weeks.
The WHO will convene an emergency meeting of experts on monkeypox next week to advise on whether the current outbreak constitutes a public health emergency of international concern, meaning it requires a coordinated response.