June 15, 2022 -- The World Health Organization announced Tuesday that it will rename the monkeypox virus after a group of scientists voiced concerns that the name is “discriminatory and stigmatizing.”
The virus has infected more than 1,600 people in 39 countries so far this year, the WHO said, including 32 countries where the virus isn’t typically detected.
“WHO is working with partners and experts from around the world on changing the name of monkeypox virus, its clades, and the disease it causes,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, the WHO’s director-general, said during a press briefing.
“We will make announcements about the new names as soon as possible,” he said.
Last week, more than 30 international scientists urged the public health community to change the name of the virus. The scientists posted a letter on Friday, which included support from the Africa CDC, noting that the name should change with the ongoing transmission among humans this year.
“The prevailing perception in the international media and scientific literature is that MPXV is endemic in people in some African countries. However, it is well established that nearly all MPXV outbreaks in Africa prior to the 2022 outbreak have been the result of spillover from animals and humans and only rarely have there been reports of sustained human-to-human transmissions,” they wrote.
“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 stigmatizing,” they added.
As one example, they noted, news outlets have used images of African patients to depict the pox lesions, although most stories about the current outbreak have focused on the global north. The Foreign Press Association of Africa has urged the global media to stop using images of Black people to highlight the outbreak in Europe.
“Although the origin of the new global MPXV outbreak is still unknown, there is growing evidence that the most likely scenario is that cross-continent, cryptic human transmission has been ongoing for longer than previously thought,” they wrote.
The WHO has listed two known clades of the monkeypox virus in recent updates -- “one identified in West Africa (WA) and one in the Congo Basin (CB) region.” The group of scientists wrote that this approach is “counter to the best practice of avoiding geographic locations in the nomenclature of diseases and disease groups.”
The scientists proposed a new classification that would name three clades in order of detection -- 1, 2, and 3 -- for the viral genomes detected in Central Africa, Western Africa, and the localized spillover events detected this year in global north countries. More genome sequencing could uncover additional clades, they noted.
Even within the most recent clade, there is already notable diversity among the genomes, the scientists said. Like the new naming convention adopted for the coronavirus pandemic, the nomenclature for human monkeypox could be donated as “A.1, A.2, A.1.1,” they wrote.
The largest current outbreak is in the U.K., where health officials have detected 524 cases, according to the latest update from the U.K. Health Security Agency.
As of Tuesday, 72 cases have been reported in the U.S., including 15 in California and 15 in New York, according to the latest CDC data.
Also on Tuesday, the WHO published interim guidance on the use of smallpox vaccines for monkeypox. The WHO doesn’t recommend mass vaccination against monkeypox and said vaccines should be used on a case-by-case basis.
The WHO will convene an emergency meeting next week to determine whether the spread of the virus should be considered a global public health emergency.
“The global outbreak of monkeypox is clearly unusual and concerning,” Tedros said Tuesday. “It’s for that reason that I have decided to convene the emergency committee under the International Health Regulations next week to assess whether this outbreak represents a public health emergency of international concern.”