News Release

“Monkeypox”: What’s In a Name?

As monkeypox is declared a public health emergency worldwide, health justice advocates are urging experts not to exacerbate stigma among those most at risk of the virus. Dr. Stella Safo, an HIV primary care physician and the founder of Just Equity for Health, told the Institute for Public Accuracy that renaming the virus is an important measure to reduce stigma. 

STELLA SAFO, MD, MPH; stella@justequityforhealth.com, @AmmahStarr

“Renaming is pretty important,” Dr. Safo said. “One of the things we’ve learned from Covid is that in the beginning, there was a belief that it was relegated only to an area. The issue with an infectious disease having a name that can be ascribed to any sort of psychological preconception is that people then evaluate their risk based on that name. From an epidemiological perspective, it’s an ineffective way for people to gauge their risk. 

    “The other reality is that when a disease that can infect humans––especially diseases that can cause disfigurement––has a closeness in its name to an animal, it increases the stigma for those who then get infected. It becomes really important that we consider all of the implications that come with a name. In this case, ‘monkeypox’ is something that people already have a lot of thoughts about. It’s important that we start to name these conditions as neutrally as possible.”

In his newsletter, Inside Medicine, Dr. Jeremy Faust agrees about the monkeypox rename. The WHO has already “said it will replace it,” writes Faust. “In 2015, the WHO issued guidance on naming new human infectious diseases. The idea is to avoid names that worsen stigma or create negative associations or fear. Best practices are to develop truly descriptive names, which may include the identity of the pathogen, disease symptoms, or date of discovery… Given that monkeypox is caused by a pathogen whose scientific name is orthopoxvirus and that this global outbreak erupted in 2022,” Faust believes “the WHO should rename monkeypox ‘Orthopoxvirus Disease 2022’ or ‘Opoxid-22.’”

STAT News added: “A subcommittee of the [International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses] that is responsible for revising the names of the various poxvirus species is in the process of finalizing a proposal for new binomial names for all the poxviruses… The subcommittee is aware of the mounting discontent over the name monkeypox. It is sympathetic to the concerns about stigma, [Colin McInnes, chair of the poxvirus committee] said, and it is not unmoved by the complaint that monkeypox is a misnomer. Monkeys aren’t the natural host—the reservoir—of the virus, they are just the first animal that was seen to be suffering from the disease.”