The World Health Organization decided to rename monkeypox. Here's why
As the world began to catch its breath from the COVID-19 pandemic, an outbreak of monkeypox swept the globe — and headlines — in 2022. While health care providers battled the virus itself, another battle over its name arose.
By the end of the year, the World Health Organization had announced that it would phase out the term “monkeypox,” citing the need to move on from what it called racist and stigmatizing language.
The new name? Mpox.
It’s not uncommon to name diseases after animals. There’s swine flu, bird flu and mad cow disease, just to name a few. But Dr. Frank LoVecchio said it’s all about the nature of the disease, and the implications of its name.
“You might say, ‘What’s the big commotion?’” LoVecchio said. “Well, it turns out that there’s a lot of stigma associated with certain names.”
For example, when it comes to something like swine flu: “That comes from you inhaling things close to the pig,” he said. “[It’s] respiratory.”
LoVecchio said naming diseases after animals isn’t the problem so much as misconceptions around animal-to-human transmission. When people jump to conclusions, he said, it contributes to stigma.
“When you hear ‘monkeypox’ and you hear men that have sex with men are associated with getting monkeypox,” LoVecchio said, “you might think that might be associated with monkeys, or men are having sex with monkeys. That’s certainly not the case.”
Some within stigmatized communities affected by the virus say that while the name change is a win, it may be too little, too late.
The Southwest Center provides services to promote health equity, with a focus on the LGBTQ community, communities of color, and those living with HIV/AIDS. Casey Simon is their senior director of health care operations.
He said sometimes achieving tangible equity feels like pushing a boulder up a hill.
“What we have right now are more people to lift, but we also have more rocks,” Simon said. “We’re able to make more progress, but there’s also more progress to be made.”
Simon said he hopes to see society shift away from jumping to conclusions when it comes to outbreaks.
“It’s less about the change, and more about that we’re continuing to do things after the damage has been done,” he said. “And really not learning from the past, and trying to learn in the moment is just not good enough anymore.”
David J. Johns is the executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition. He said the way we talk about viruses like mpox can affect the way we think about them, and thinking of them as only affecting certain communities leads to additional problems.
“There’s a way in which people are privileged, or feel privileged as a result of not being a part of stigmatized or minoritized communities,” Johns said, “that [they] end up being vulnerable to disproportionate harm.”
Marshall Shore is the project manager for the Arizona LGBT+ History Project.
“There is this common thread of trying to find a scapegoat,” Shore said. “Who, what do we blame for this?”
Shore said that scapegoating behavior also carries over to viruses like the Spanish flu and COVID-19.
“When you first look at HIV/AIDS, you have the name GRID, which was Gay Related Immune Deficiency,” Shore said. “It was considered to be a ‘gay only’ disease.”
Shore said there are parallels between the misconceptions and stigmas associated with HIV/AIDS and mpox.
“And then that blaming of someone: ‘Oh, you have it. You must have gotten it this way,’” he said.
Shore said mpox dates back to the 1970s, but racialization of the original name and recent stigma attached to it necessitated the change.
“As our knowledge of the disease progresses, that changing of the term also highlights that,” Shore said.
LoVecchio pointed out that even our understanding of where mpox comes from has changed from when it was discovered in captive monkeys.
“We know that now, monkeypox, the most common carrier, the most likely animal reservoir is rats,” LoVecchio said.
With a better understanding of the disease, Simon said directing resources where they’re needed most without singling out certain communities is key.
“It’s telling the truth,” Simon said. “If we just started from the truth every time there was a situation, I think we wouldn’t be finding ourselves in the position of having to fix.”
Johns said that change in language is important.“[It’s] underscoring the importance of telling the truth,” Johns said. “One of the challenges that we find is that stigma often results in a retelling of stories that are not based in truth.”