Today, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that it will be begin to use the preferred term “mpox” as a synonym for monkeypox. The WHO said that it will use both names simultaneously for the next year while the term monkeypox is phased out. Additionally, the term mpox can also be used in languages other than English. The WHO said that any additional naming issues will be addressed.
When an outbreak of the disease first emerged last May, scientists and experts called on the WHO to change its name in an effort to avoid stigma and racist stereotypes associated with the disease.
Monkeypox was named in 1970, 12 years after scientists first discovered the disease in captive monkeys. In 2015, the WHO published best practices for naming diseases. According to these best practices, “new disease names should be given with the aim to minimize unnecessary negative impact of names on trade, travel, tourism or animal welfare, and avoid causing offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups.”
“When the outbreak of monkeypox expanded earlier this year, racist and stigmatizing language online, in other settings and in some communities was observed and reported to WHO,” the statement said. “In several meetings, public and private, a number of individuals and countries raised concerns and asked WHO to propose a way forward to change the name.”
The WHO encouraged the public to suggest new names for the disease in August. The organization also reached consensus to refer to the former Congo Basin (Central African) clade as Clade one (I) and the former West African clade as Clade two (II). It was also agreed upon that Clade II consists of two subclades, IIa and IIb. In biology, a clade is a group of organisms believed to evolve from one common ancestor.
The consultation process for the name change included experts from multiple advisory committees, including scientific, classification, statistics, and medical teams and representatives from 45 different countries.
“The issue of the use of the new name in different languages was extensively discussed. The preferred term mpox can be used in other languages,” WHO said.
While it is not common to rename existing diseases, it does happen from time to time. Trisomy 21 is also called Down syndrome, which was chosen to replace the name Mongolism, an outdated and racist term.
In an effort to make sure that older historic information can be found, the term “monkeypox” will remain searchable in the International Classification of Diseases, a global database of diseases. Each disease is assigned a code in the ICD that are used in billing and to collect and research health data. The ICD also gives the WHO the authority to change and update names when needed.
More than 81,000 mpox cases in 110 countries have been reported to WHO during the disease’s most recent outbreak. The WHO says that the global risk still remains moderate. Additionally, outside of countries in West and Central Africa, the current outbreak continues to primarily affect men who have sex with men.