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When monkeypox first broke out decades ago, scientists and activists pushed for a name that didn’t sound as discriminatory and “non-stigmatizing.”
Public health experts feared that the name would bring a stigma that made it unappealing for people to get tested and vaccinated.
According to the experts, a new name would help spread the disease.
Globally, 60,000 cases have been reported, and in June, the World Health Organization’s director-general promised to change the virus’s name.
How it got its name
Traditionally, the scientist who isolates a virus gets the honor of giving it a name, and the monkeypox has had its name for 64 years.
Researcher Preben von Magnus and his team discovered two “pox-like” outbreaks in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1958.
The virus was found in a colony of crab-eating macaque monkeys, but it wasn’t until 1970 that the first human case of monkeypox was documented.
Although the child recovered from the infection, he would die six days later from measles.
Since then, cases have been documented in West and Central Africa.
According to the CDC, cases in other places were linked to travel.
In 2018, cases emerged in countries that had not seen the disease in decades, prompting a global health security concern.
It was only this year when outbreaks started emerging in countries that never recorded monkeypox that a name change was pushed.
Proposed names for old viruses
According to WHO, the naming process is underway with reconsideration for orthopoxvirus species, including the following:
WHO taxonomy committee member Colin McInnes said the panel has a mandate to bring “virus species nomenclature into line with the way that most other forms of life are named.”
He shared that while poxviruses are traditionally named after the animal it is first spotted, it also created some inconsistencies.
Monkeypox’s origins are still unknown, and it probably didn’t start with monkeys as it can be found in several other kinds of animals.
McInnes, the deputy director and principal scientist in the Moredun Group, a group that develops vaccines and tests for livestock and other animals, also studies squirrelpox.
Squirrelpox is also slated to get a name change.
He said that the monkeypox virus and others would be renamed to “orthopoxvirus ‘something.’
“It is the ‘something’ that is currently being debated,” said McInnes.
He revealed that some scientists prefer to remain with the monkeypox name to retain the link to 50 years of published research.
The WHO committee has until June of next year to suggest changes.
Many scientists have called for WHO to work with more urgency.
In July, weeks went by without any action, prompting the New York City Health commissioner to send a letter to WHO.
The letter urged them to act before it’s too late, citing growing concern for the stigmatizing effects that the message around the monkeypox virus can have on communities.
The outbreak has largely affect gay and bisexual men and other men who have sex with men, creating a stigma and an ongoing concern for WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
“Stigma and discrimination can be just as dangerous as any virus,” Tedros said when declaring monkeypox a global health emergency in July.
The CDC reports that the virus is disproportionately affecting Black and Hispanic people in the United States.
Local public health data shows that fewer members of both communities are getting the vaccine.
Experts are concerned that apart from the barriers making it difficult to access any kind of health care, some people might not get the vaccine or get tested due to the stigma.
In the 2015 WHO naming conventions, the organization encouraged attendants to avoid naming diseases after animals, names, occupations, and places due to stigmatization.
Last month, WHO also encouraged new names for monkeypox to be submitted on their website.
More than 180 names were proposed to a wide mix of creative explanations.
Names like lopox, ovidpox, mixypox, and roxypox carried no explanation.
Meanwhile, a handful were facetious, like alaskapox, bonopox, and rodentpox.
Johanna Vogl submitted “greypox,” saying the name referred to a phenotypic mark of the disease and greyish blisters.
She also offered that it wasn’t associated with human skin color, location, group or animal.
Dr. Jeremy Faust, an emergency medicine physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and instructor in emergency medicine at Harvard, suggested “opoxid-22.”
“While the monkeypox virus causing the current outbreak is not a novel pathogen, I propose that due to its destination as a public health emergency of international concern, renaming it is warranted,” Faust explained.
He added that he was bothered with the inaccuracy of the monkeypox name and the stigma it brought, saying he submitted the name while waiting for some other work to finish.
Opoxid-22 reflects what’s known about the virus while removing the “monkey” from the name.
Opinions expressed by NY Weekly contributors are their own.