The World Health Organization (WHO) announced on November 28 that it has begun phasing out the widely used term monkeypox, replacing it with the new preferred term “mpox.”
Both terms will be used simultaneously for one year to mitigate any concerns over the name change amid the global outbreak and to provide time to update the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) and WHO publications, according to a statement released by WHO.
The name change occurred after incidents involving racist and stigmatizing language online and in other settings were observed at the height of the current outbreak and reported to WHO.
“The process, which normally takes years, was accelerated, though following the standard steps,” WHO said in a statement.
“WHO, in accordance with the ICD update process, held consultations to gather views from a range of experts, as well as countries and the general public, who were invited to submit suggestions for new names. Various advisory bodies were heard during the consultation process, including experts from the medical and scientific and classification and statistics advisory committees, which constituted of representatives from government authorities of 45 different countries.”
This significant change arrives after calls for an update to the original name for an outbreak that has overwhelmingly impacted gay and bisexual men.
As of November 29, there have been 29, 325 total U.S. cases of mpox, according to data from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). At the same time, cases continue to decline nationally, with an average of 7 per day, according to the latest data (Nov. 30) from the CDC. Still, Black and Latino gay and bisexual men remain overrepresented in mpox cases.
In July, New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Ashwin Vasan sent a letter to Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO, urging him to rename monkeypox immediately.
“NYC joins many public health experts and community leaders who have expressed their 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,” wrote Vasan.
“Monkeypox” is a misnomer, as the virus does not originate in monkeys and was only classified as such due to an infection seen in research primates.” Vasan further writes, “This kind of false messaging created incalculable harm and stigma for decades to come. Continuing to use the term “monkeypox” to describe the current outbreak may reignite these traumatic feelings of racism and stigma — particularly for Black people and other people of color, as well as members of the LGBTQIA+ communities, and it is possible that they may avoid engaging in vital health care services because of it.”
In May, Africa’s Foreign Press Association called out their “displeasure” of the media’s use of Black people alongside stories depicting monkeypox cases in Europe and North America.
The Foreign Press Association, Africa registers its displeasure against media outlets using images of black people alongside stories of the #monkeypox outbreak in North America and the United Kingdom. pic.twitter.com/u32yWLELJg
— The Foreign Press Association, Africa—FPAA. (@FPA_Africa) May 21, 2022
“As any other disease, it can occur in any region in the world and afflict anyone, regardless of race or ethnicity. As such, we believe that no race or skin complexion should be the face of this disease.”
Human monkeypox was first identified in 1970 (after the virus that causes the disease was discovered in captive monkeys in 1958) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In 2003, the first monkeypox outbreak outside of Africa occurred in the U.S. This outbreak was linked to contact with infected pet prairie dogs, according to WHO.
Sarah Kate Ellis, President of GLAAD, reacted to news of the name change online and in a press release.
“Public health officials and authorities must remove every barrier to improving understanding about how viruses spread and who is most affected. Decades of public health research shows stigma slows down testing, treatment, access to care, and vaccine equity, particularly in communities of color, which are often disproportionately impacted by global outbreaks. GLAAD urges media to follow the new WHO guidelines for reporting on Mpox and continue to center gay and bisexual men, and Black and Latino populations, who remain overrepresented in Mpox cases and need accurate information to get fully vaccinated and treated.”
“Tossing out the old name, which many perceive as offensive, is much easier than deciding on a new one,” says Antoine Ghoston, Executive Director of Arkansas Black Gay Men’s Forum and a GILEAD Sciences COMPASS grantee. “I believe the new name has already begun to move us in a slightly better direction toward breaking the stigma attached to this disease, particularly among Black gay and bisexual men.”
In a tweet, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH, confirmed the CDC’s adoption of the new term.
We welcome and support the renaming to mpox to reduce stigma and barriers to care for those most impacted. https://t.co/qxRuFWm6cd
— Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH (@CDCDirector) November 29, 2022
“Following @WHO recommendations, @CDCgov will begin using the term #mpox. We welcome and support the renaming to mpox to reduce stigma and barriers to care for those most impacted,” Walensky wrote.
The Biden/Harris Administration also expressed their support for the name change in a statement released via the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“We welcome the change by the World Health Organization. We must do all we can to break down barriers to public health, and reducing stigma associated with disease is one critical step in our work to end mpox,” said U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra.
Moving forward, WHO is encouraging the public, health professionals, and media outlets to utilize the new term mpox in all related communications to “minimize any ongoing negative impact of the current name and from the adoption of the new name.”