Monkeypox will soon have a new name after scientists called for a change to dispel stereotypes that Africa is seen as a melting pot of disease.
The World Health Organization (WHO) announced last week that it is “working with partners and experts around the world to rename the monkeypox virus, its clades, and the disease it causes.”
Monkeypox clades, which are different branches of the virus family tree, have been particularly controversial because they are named after African regions.
Last year, the WHO officially named the variants of Covid-19 with Greek letters to avoid stigmatizing the places where they were first detected.
Just days before the WHO announced it would change the name of monkeypox, a group of 29 scientists wrote a letter saying there is an “urgent need for a non-discriminatory and non-stigmatizing nomenclature” for the virus.
The letter, signed by several prominent African scientists, called for the names of the “West African” and “Central African” or “Congo Basin” clades of monkeypox to be changed.
Until a few months ago, monkeypox was largely confined to West and Central Africa.
But since May, a new version has spread throughout much of the world. The letter’s signatories suggested naming this version a new clade, giving it “the placeholder tag hMPXV”, for human monkeypox virus.
Read: WHO warns of “real” risk as monkeypox outbreak exceeds 1,000 cases
Of the more than 2,100 monkeypox cases recorded globally this year, 84 percent occurred in Europe, 12 percent in the Americas and just 3 percent in Africa, according to the latest WHO update this week. pass.
‘It’s not a monkey disease’
Oyewale Tomori, a virologist at Redeemer University in Nigeria, said he supports renaming the monkeypox clades.
“But even the name monkeypox is aberrational. It’s not the right name,” he said. AFP. “If I were a monkey, I would protest because it’s not really a monkey disease.”
The virus got its name after it was first discovered among monkeys in a Danish laboratory in 1958, but humans mainly contracted the virus from rodents.
The letter noted that “almost all” of the outbreaks in Africa were caused by people who contracted the virus from animals, not from other people.
But the current outbreak “is unusual in that it is spreading purely through person-to-person transmission,” said Olivier Restif, an epidemiologist at the University of Cambridge.
“So it is fair to say that the current outbreak has very little to do with Africa, in the same way that the waves and variants of Covid-19 that are still hitting us have little to do with the Asian bats from which they came. The virus originally appeared a few years ago.”
‘Stigmatization of Africa’
Moses John Bockarie, of Sierra Leone’s Njala University, said he agreed with the call to change the name of monkeypox.
“Monkeys are generally associated with the global south, especially Africa,” he wrote in The conversation.
“Also, there is a long and dark history of black people being compared to monkeys. No disease nomenclature should provide a trigger for this.”
Restif said it was “important to highlight that this debate is part of a larger problem with the stigmatization of Africa as a source of disease.”
“We’ve seen it most strikingly with HIV in the 1980s, with Ebola during the 2013 outbreak, and again with Covid-19 and reactions to so-called ‘South African variants,'” he said. AFP.
An African press group also expressed “dissatisfaction with the media using images of black people alongside stories of the monkeypox outbreak in North America and the UK.
“We condemn the perpetuation of this negative stereotype that assigns calamity to the African race and privilege or immunity to other races,” the African Foreign Press Association tweeted last month.
Restif pointed out that “old photographs of African patients” used by Western media generally show severe symptoms.
But the monkeypox that is spreading around the world “is much milder, which partly explains how easily it spreads,” he said.
The WHO will announce the new names for monkeypox “as soon as possible,” its director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.
The UN agency will also hold an emergency committee meeting on Thursday to assess whether the outbreak represents a public health emergency of international concern, the highest alarm that can be sounded.