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Monkeypox: Critics call controversial label ‘discriminatory and stigmatizing’

Nearly seven weeks after the World Health Organization said it will change the name of the monkeypox disease, agreeing with scientists who called it “discriminatory and stigmatizing,” the controversial label doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

Critics say the name “monkeypox” plays into racist stereotypes about Black people, Africa and LGBTQ people and, they note, it falsely suggests monkeys are the main source of the virus.

“Monkeypox should be renamed for two major reasons,” said Dr. Ifeanyi Nsofor, a global health equity advocate and senior New Voices fellow at the Aspen Institute. “First, there is a long history of referring to Blacks as monkeys. Therefore, ‘monkeypox’ is racist and stigmatizes Blacks.”

“Second, ‘monkeypox’ gives a wrong impression that the disease is only transmitted by monkeys. This is wrong,” he adds.

Yet despite growing criticism of the name, the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses said that even if the name is changed in the next year or two, the term “monkey” will likely still be part of any revamped name. While WHO names diseases, the ICTV determines the formal names of viruses.

In recent discussions held by the ICTV, “the consensus is that use of the name ‘monkey’ is sufficiently separated from any pejorative context such that there is no reason for any change,” Elliot Lefkowitz, the organization’s data secretary said.

And when asked for an update on WHO’s name-changing process, WHO Chief Scientist Dr. Soumya Swaminathan said last week: “We, as far as I know, have not received any proposals for a name to replace monkeypox.” The process, she adds, remains open for suggestions.

Nonetheless, the movement to change the name of the virus is continuing. Last Tuesday, New York City public health commissioner Ashwin Vasan sent a letter urging WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to act immediately to rename monkeypox, citing “potentially devastating and stigmatizing effects.”