This decision comes after months of deliberation and widespread criticism from scientists and public health advocates. The WHO initially announced that it would be changing the name in June, and consulted with numerous experts and countries to determine the new name. In a press release, the organization noted that the new name had to account for considerations of “rationale, scientific appropriateness, extent of current usage, pronounceability, usability in different languages, absence of geographical or zoological references, and ease of retrieval of historical scientific information.”
The WHO will use both names for the next year, as the old one is slowly phased out. The updating of the virus’s name in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), which is the global standard for health data and documentation, has also been fast-tracked.
The new name was suggested by RÉZO, a Montreal-based organization that works with men who have sex with men—the main group affected by the virus in Western countries. The organization worked closely with an alliance of Canadian community organizations to come up with the term “mpox.” It follows a Quebec effort to replace the French term variole du singe (monkey virus) with variole simienne (simian virus).
“We’ve been worried about the stigma that might affect our community,” said Samuel Miriello, one of RÉZO’s directors, in an interview with CBC.
Monkeypox was always a misnomer, as monkeys have almost nothing to do with the transmission of the disease—though they were the animal in which the disease was first detected by scientists in the 1950s. Mpox has been known to circulate in Western and Central Africa for decades, mostly affecting rural communities who catch it through direct contact with wild animals.
Critics of the term “monkeypox” have said that the name reinforced Western stereotypes of the African continent as a reservoir of pestilence and sexually transmitted illnesses. Some have also pointed out that it played into racist tropes that compare Black people to primates. Others have criticized some Western media outlets that selected photos of Black people with lesions for their mpox stories.
Public health advocates have been pushing for the name change for some time. In June, a group of African scientists warned in an open letter that failing to find a less problematic name for the disease would slow down containment efforts, in addition to promoting stigma. “In the context of the current global outbreak, continued reference to, and nomenclature of this virus being African is not only inaccurate but is also discriminatory and stigmatizing,” the scientists wrote. “A practical and neutral system of nomenclature allows efficient communication without the risk of further misconceptions, discrimination and stigmatization.” The group also highlighted the stigmatizing effect of using photos of African mpox patients in news coverage.
Scientists believe that mpox outbreaks in the West originated at two raves in Belgium and Spain and spread via sexual encounters. According to WHO data, the virus is currently present in around 110 countries, which have reported a total of around 80,000 confirmed cases and 55 deaths this year.
In wealthy countries, vaccination efforts and targeted control interventions have brought the disease mostly under control. By the start of November, more than a million doses of vaccines had been administered in the United States, and more than 100,000 doses had been administered in Canada. Montreal, once the epicentre of the Canadian epidemic, has reported almost no new cases this month.