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NPR News

The WHO wants to give monkeypox a new name

A medical technician shows a suspected monkeypox sample at the microbiology laboratory of La Paz Hospital on June 6 in Madrid. The World Health Organization is working with experts on changing the name of the virus.
Pablo Blazquez Dominguez
/
Getty Images
A medical technician shows a suspected monkeypox sample at the microbiology laboratory of La Paz Hospital on June 6 in Madrid. The World Health Organization is working with experts on changing the name of the virus.

Monkeypox is poised to get a new name, the World Health Organization says, after scientists recently criticized the current name as "discriminatory and stigmatizing." The researchers say it's also inaccurate to name versions of the virus after parts of Africa.

The WHO is working with experts "on changing the name of monkeypox virus, its clades and the disease it causes," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a briefing on the outbreak on Tuesday.

Tedros is also calling an emergency meeting next week to discuss the virus, which he says is not behaving the way it has in the past.

Experts are calling for the change

A group of 29 biologists and other researchers issued a public call for a new nomenclature around monkeypox last week on the virological.org website. They said the current international outbreak "has been detected without a clear link to Africa."

Despite "growing evidence that the most likely scenario is that cross-continent, cryptic human transmission has been ongoing for longer than previously thought," the scientists said, a public narrative persists in suggesting the current outbreak is linked to Africa, West Africa or Nigeria. That builds on an existing stigma, they said.

"The most obvious manifestation of this is the use of photos of African patients to depict the pox lesions in mainstream media in the global north," the researchers said.

The paper's authors include Ahmed Ogwell, deputy director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, and more than a dozen infectious disease experts in the U.S. and Europe.

As for what the virus should be called, the scientists suggest starting with hMPXV, to denote the human version of the monkeypox virus. Rather than geographic locations, they say, letters and numbers should be used, based on order of discovery. In that system, the lineage behind the current international outbreak would be dubbed B.1.

Monkeypox is spreading, and behaving differently, Tedros says

Monkeypox has been reported in 39 countries so far in 2022, and most of them are having their first-ever cases of the disease, according to the WHO. Worldwide, it says, there are around 3,100 confirmed or suspected cases, including 72 deaths.

"The global outbreak of monkeypox is clearly unusual and concerning," Tedros said.

Elaborating on that idea later in the briefing, Tedros said, "the virus is behaving unusually from how it used to behave in the past. But not only that, it's also affecting more and more countries."

Tedros said he's convening the WHO's Emergency Committee on June 23 "to assess whether this outbreak represents a public health emergency of international concern."

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