La variole du singe, which now extends to some forty countries after being long contained in Africa, will soon be called otherwise. The World Health Organization (WHO) intends to change its name, which is considered misleading and discriminatory.
WHO is considering “changing the name of the virus” from monkeypox, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization, said last week, promising “announcements as soon as possible” on the matter. . Beyond the virus alone, it would also and above all be about changing the name of its various strains, as well as that of the disease itself.
Why this change, at a time when monkeypox has been spotted in more than 40 countries and could soon be considered an international emergency by WHO?
Stigmatizing for African countries
If WHO had not yet openly explained the reasons for its decision, it would come after many concerns about stigmatizing terms for African countries. This consideration applies in particular to virus sources. They are in fact named after regions or countries in Africa: we speak of the West African strain and that of the Congo Basin, the latter being much more deadly than its cousin.
In early June, some 30 scientists, many of them from Africa, wrote a forum calling for a change in their names, calling it urgent to put in place “a nomenclature that is neither discriminatory nor stigmatizing.”
A new name would take note of the current reality of the disease. While this is long limited to a dozen African countries, 84% of new cases were detected this year in Europe and 12% in the Americas. So why not just change the name of the strains and keep talking about “monkeypox”? First of all because it is misleading.
The current outbreak shows that the new strain is more easily transmitted from one human to another, compared to what is observed in Africa, where recorded cases have more often come to contaminate an animal. Above all, even originally, “this is frankly not a monkey-related disease,” virologist Oyewale Tomori told AFP.
This name is the legacy of the conditions for the discovery of the disease, in the 1950s: Danish researchers had discovered it in monkeys in their laboratory. But in real life, it is usually caught by rodents.
Along with this deceptive side, there are, again, concerns about the stigmatizing nature of such a name. “Monkeys are generally associated with countries in the South, especially Africa,” says researcher Moses John Bockarie on The Conversation.
These concerns are part of a broader context where Africa has frequently been targeted as the root cause of diseases that have spread around the world. “We mostly saw this with AIDS in the 1980s, Ebola during the 2013 epidemic, and then with Covid and the supposed South African variants,” epidemiologist Oliver Restif told AFP.
In what capacity, the image and importance of the son. Mr. Restif regrets that the media has often chosen unfortunate illustrations for their articles on monkeypox. These are often “old photographs of African patients”, while the current cases “are much less serious”, he notes.