Monkeypox may soon have a new name after scientists called for a change to dispel stereotypes of Africa being seen as a melting pot of disease.
The World Health Organization (WHO) announced last week that it is “working with partners and experts from around the world to change the name of 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 Covid-19 variants after the Greek letters to avoid stigmatizing the places where they were first detected.
A few days before WHO announced it would change the name of monkeypox, a group of 29 scientists wrote a letter stating that 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 monkeypox clades to be changed to “West Africa” and “Central African” or “Congo Basin”.
Until a few months ago, monkeypox had largely been confined to West and Central Africa.
But since May, a new version has spread across much of the world. The signatories of the letter suggested naming this version as a new clade, giving it the “hMPXV placeholder tag” – for human monkeypox virus.
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Of the more than 2,100 monkeypox cases recorded globally this year, 84% were in Europe, 12% in the Americas and just 3% in Africa, according to the latest WHO update last week.
“It’s not a monkey disease”
Oyewale Tomori, a virologist at Redeemer’s University in Nigeria, said he was in favor of changing the name of monkeypox clades.
“But even the name monkeypox is abhorrent. It’s not the right name, “he said AFP. “If I were a monkey, I’d protest because it’s not really a monkey disease.”
The virus is named after its first discovery among monkeys in a Danish laboratory in 1958, but humans have contracted the virus mainly from rodents.
The letter pointed out that “almost all” of the outbreaks in Africa were triggered by people who contracted the virus from animals, not other people.
But the current outbreak “is unusual in that it is spreading exclusively through human-to-human transmission,” said Olivier Restif, an epidemiologist at the University of Cambridge.
“So, it is fair to say that the current epidemic has very little to do with Africa, in the same way that the waves of Covid-19 and the variants we are still affected by have little to do with Asian bats. from which the virus originally came a few years ago ”.
“Stigmatization of Africa”
Moses John Bockarie of Njala University in Sierra Leone said he agreed with the call to change the name of monkeypox.
“Monkeys are usually associated with the southern hemisphere, particularly Africa,” he wrote The conversation.
“Also, there is a long, dark history of black people compared to monkeys. No disease nomenclature should provide a trigger for this.
Restif said it is “important to stress that this debate is part of a larger issue with the stigmatization of Africa as a source of disease.”
“We saw it most surprisingly with HIV in the 1980s, with Ebola during the 2013 epidemic and again with Covid-19 and reactions to so-called ‘South African variants’,” he said. AFP.
An African press group also expressed “its displeasure with the media using images of people of color along with stories of the monkeypox epidemic 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 Foreign Press Association, Africa tweeted last month.
Restif pointed out that the “old archival photographs of African patients” used by the Western media usually describe severe symptoms.
But monkeypox that spreads around the world “is much milder, which partly explains how easily it is transmitted,” he said.
WHO will announce the new names for monkeypox “as soon as possible,” said its boss Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
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 it can sound.