The World Health Organization said Monday it will phase out the name of the disease monkeypox over the next year, replacing it with the term mpox. The decision follows widespread calls for changing the name since the current international outbreak of the disease was first detected last May.
The name of the disease and even the virus itself has been deemed by many to exacerbate the stigma attached to the infection — a sentiment the WHO referenced in the statement it issued announcing the change.
“When the outbreak of monkeypox expanded earlier this year, racist and stigmatizing language online, in other settings and in some communities was observed and reported to WHO,” the statement said. “In several meetings, public and private, a number of individuals and countries raised concerns and asked WHO to propose a way forward to change the name.”
The WHO has the authority to name and on occasion rename diseases under the International Classification of Diseases, which is in effect the global bible of diseases. In the ICD, each disease is assigned a code that countries around the world use for health billing purposes and to collect and research health data.
It is not common to give existing diseases new names, though it does happen from time to time. The congenital condition now known as trisomy 21 was previously called Down syndrome, a name chosen to replace the unacceptable term Mongolism.
Typically the process of renaming a disease takes a number of years. The WHO acknowledged that this time, the work was done on an accelerated schedule, though it did involve consultation with experts and countries. The general public was also invited to propose replacement names.
The WHO statement said the transition to the new name will be done over the course of a year to minimize confusion and give the agency time to update its various monkeypox-related publications. The term monkeypox will remain in the ICD, to lower the risk of a disconnect between studies that used the old terminology and those that use mpox.
The WHO will likely satisfy some critics of the term monkeypox, but it will not drive the word from the scientific literature. That’s because the name of the virus itself does not appear to be changing.
Authority to change the name of a virus is the purview of the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses, which to date has expressed unwillingness to drop the term monkeypox, citing a fear that the continuity of the scientific literature could be compromised by giving the virus a new name.
The ICTV is in the process of revising the names of viruses to make them correspond to the binomial naming protocol for other species. But the chairman of the committee responsible for renaming poxviruses told STAT in August that monkeypox will likely become Orthopoxvirus monkeypox.
Last week, Colin McInnes indicated that view remains the prevailing one among his committee members.
“Suffice to say the majority wanted a link to be maintained with the traditional names, but we have not made any final decisions yet,” said McInnes, who is deputy director of Scotland’s Moredun Research Institute.
In June, an international group of scientists, led by several prominent researchers from Africa, called for a renaming of the clades of the virus, which are known by the geographic names Congo Basin and West African, after the parts of Africa where they were first identified. The WHO has a protocol for the naming of diseases that stipulates, among other things, that they should not be named after places or people.
The scientists proposed calling the clades by neutral names, clade 1 for Congo Basin and clade 2 for West Africa.
Neither the ICTV nor the WHO are responsible for naming viral clades; that is a far less formal process. Clades are known, in essence, by what scientists call them in scientific papers. And since the call to rename the clades was issued, there has been widespread adoption of the names clade 1 and clade 2.
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