Monkeypox is getting a new name.
In an effort to align the disease name with “best practices,” the World Health Organization on Friday issued a request for ideas from the public.
The name monkeypox comes from the virus’ discovery in monkeys in a Danish laboratory in 1958, which was before WHO adopted its current method for naming viruses and diseases.
“Current best practice is that newly-identified viruses, related disease and virus variants should be given names with the aim to avoid causing offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups, and minimize any negative impact on trade, travel, tourism or animal welfare,” WHO said in a press release.
According to the organization’s best practices, a disease name should not include a geographic location, peoples’ names, animal species, food names, terms that incite fear or references to cultures, populations, industries or occupations.
Notably, attacks on monkeys have been reported in Brazil, leading WHO to warn against harming animals over the virus.
“What people need to know very clearly is that the transmission we are seeing is happening between humans to humans,” WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris said at a press conference last week. “It’s close-contact transmission. The concern should be about where it’s transmitting in the human population and what humans can do to protect themselves from getting it and transmitting it. They should certainly not be attacking any animals.”
The monkeypox virus is present in many different animals, including most commonly in rodents.
But that isn’t the only issue with the name. Scientists have also criticized it as discriminatory and stigmatizing.
The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene urged WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in late July to “immediately” act on a new name.
“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,” the department wrote in a letter.
“Further, as we are reminded by fierce advocates who served on the front lines as the HIV/AIDS epidemic emerged, early misinformation about the virus led people to believe that it was spread to humans after people in Africa engaged in sexual activity with monkeys,” the scientists wrote. “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.”
However, the process has been slow moving. And while WHO is in charge of renaming the monkeypox disease, another group is actually in charge of the virus’ name. That process is ongoing with the International Committee on the Taxonomy of Viruses.
Tedros said in mid-June that WHO had agreed to rename the disease. Now, two months later, the organization is still taking suggestions from the public as to what the new name should be.
WHO on Friday took action to rename two monkeypox strains, also known as clades, with Roman numerals instead of geographic areas. Now, the former Congo Basin clade is known as Clade I and the former West African clade as Clade II.
“The new names for the clades should go into effect immediately while work continues on the disease and virus names,” WHO said in a press release. It did not say when additional new names would be announced.