As monkeypox surpasses 1,600 confirmed cases worldwide, the World Health Organization (WHO) says it is considering a name change for the virus.
During a press briefing on Tuesday, the WHO’s director-general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the organization is “working with partners and experts from around the world on changing the name of monkeypox virus, its clades and the disease it causes.”
This comes after a group of 29 experts from around the world published a call to change the name of the virus on June 10, saying the “prevailing perception” of the virus right now is “not only inaccurate but is also discriminatory and stigmatizing.”
In their public report, the experts said the virus causing monkeypox, MPXV, currently has two “clades” – or organisms that come from a common ancestor and therefore have common genetics – that are recognized by the medical community: the “West African” clade and the “Central African” or “Congo Basin” clade.
But the report’s authors said the current outbreak appears not to be linked to Africa at all.
“These historic MPXV clade names are counter to the best practice of avoiding geographic locations in the nomenclature of diseases and disease groups,” the experts said, noting that the WHO avoided naming variants of the virus causing COVID-19 after the places in which they were first found.
“Given the increasingly rapid communication of, and attention to, the international human MPXV outbreak, it is important to consider an appropriate, non-discriminatory, and non-stigmatizing nomenclature and classification of MPXV clades,” they said.
The virology experts suggest that the virus and its clades be classified as MPXV clades 1, 2 and 3, named in order of detection.
And while monkeypox is occasionally caused by human crossover with primates, the report’s authors also said it can be spread by rodents, squirrels and other humans. They said they hope a new classification would be “an opportunity for a break with the name monkeypox and the historical associations attached to that name.”
For the current iteration of the virus spreading around the globe, the authors suggest the name hMPXV, with the “h” marking that scientists believe the origins could possibly be human.
On Tuesday, Ghebreyesus told reporters that the WHO would “make announcements about the new names as soon as possible.”
Besides a name change, the report’s authors also issued a call to stop the use of photos of African patients to depict the pox lesions in the media as a way to avoid further stigmatization.
Advocates for the LGBTQ2S+ community have also expressed concern about stigmatization concerning the virus. While anyone could be susceptible to catching the virus through lose contact with a sick person, including but not limited to sexual activity, some worry that new clusters of cases reported among men who have sex with other men could trigger prejudices or scapegoating similar to the HIV-AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s.