Naming a virus
August 31, 2022
By Gwen Grewe, MD, clinical vice president, primary care
Words matter – and many public health officials believe the monkeypox name is problematic. A growing number of experts say this name is not only inaccurate but stigmatizes African people and an infection that largely affects men who have sex with men.
Here at Legacy, medical leaders have debated the use of monkeypox in our communications with employees and patients. Many of us would prefer to use a new name – one that reflects the virus’ true origins and that is inoffensive. For now, we’re sticking with monkeypox, or hMPXV, to avoid confusion and stay consistent with public health agencies. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) and the Multnomah County Health Department all refer to the virus as monkeypox. OHA and Multnomah County both use hMPXV in second reference and beyond – and we’ve followed their lead.
Scientists say the most likely carriers of the virus are rodents like rats and squirrels – not monkeys. But hMPXV was first identified in a colony of lab monkeys in 1958, hence the name. Since the first human case was confirmed in the Republic of Congo in 1970, hMPXV has spread to 44 countries. Yet many people, often aided by images of African patients with the signature rash, believe the current outbreak is largely isolated to Africa.
Push for action
As the virus has surfaced around the world in the last 20 years, public health officials have been pushing the World Health Organization (WHO) to designate a new name for it to eliminate confusion and reduce the stigmatization and shame associated with the illness. The WHO acknowledged the problem in June and is working on finding a new name.
The WHO tackles the global job of naming viruses and in 2015 established a process that seeks to “minimize unnecessary negative impact of disease names on trade, travel, tourism or animal welfare, and avoid causing offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups.”
Those best practices, however, do not apply to existing names, like monkeypox.
Tulio de Oliveira, a bioinformatician at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, is one of many scientists pushing to rename hMPXV. He joined two dozen scientist who published an open letter in June make the request to the WHO and criticized the media for portraying this as an African disease. Doctors and scientists say they see an eerie similarity in the language and attitudes around hMPXV that harkens back to the 1980s and the first cases of H.I.V.
“Words carry weight, words carry value,” Dr. Halkitis said to the New York Times recently. “The problem with those kinds of terms is that they attribute blame, and when you attribute blame your create stigma, which emboldens hate and undermines the well-being of people.”
At Legacy, we will continue to follow public health agencies as we communicate about hMPXV. We know the name monkeypox is offensive to some people. But in a public health emergency, what matters most is clarity. All of us, as healthcare providers and as patients, need to understand the diseases we’re battling – starting with their names.