Poxy McPoxface or TRUMP-22? The WHO asks the public for suggestions to rename monkeypox

The WHO has launched an open call to rename monkeypox.
The WHO has launched an open call to rename monkeypox. Copyright Canva
By Giulia Carbonaro
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Experts say the virus' current name is "discriminatory and stigmatising".

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The World Health Organization (WHO) is looking to rename monkeypox after scientists criticised its current moniker as "discriminatory and stigmatising" which has resulted in reportedly vicious attacks on monkeys in Brazil last week.

In a public call issued by 29 biologists and researchers on the website virological.org on June 10, scientists decried the fact that information around monkeypox has been spread on international media together with the perception that the virus is endemic in some African countries, despite the fact that before the 2022 outbreak there have been only a few reports of human-to-human transmissions on the continent.

"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 stigmatising," the scientists wrote, citing how mainstream media often use photos of African patients to depict pox lesions informing the European public.

As an alternative name, the scientists themselves suggest the virus should be called hMPXV.

But the new name hasn’t quite picked up yet. While there are references to the virus being called MPX and MPXV by both authorities and LGBTQ+ health advocates, the virus is still widely referred to by mainstream media and the public as “monkeypox”.

So, the WHO is now calling on the public to rename the virus, launching an open call accepting any suggestion which is available on their website.

Why change monkeypox's name?

The virus was originally called "monkeypox" in 1958 when it was first identified in monkeys in a Danish research lab. Since then, the disease has actually been found in several animals - most frequently rodents - and only in 1970 was the virus found for the first time in humans in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

But the name isn’t perfect.

The term "monkeypox," WHO officials say, appears to blame the virus on monkeys alone, which are hardly the only transmitters of the virus. On top of that, the name is a dark reminder of the racist history of the term and plays into stereotypes against Black people, experts have warned.

For these reasons, the WHO has been talking about changing the virus’ name for a while now as cases of the virus explode in Europe and North America.

"Human monkeypox was given its name before current best practices in naming diseases," WHO spokeswoman Fadela Chaib told the media in Geneva on July 26.

"We really want to find a name that is not stigmatising".

WHO scientists have already renamed three monkeypox new variants currently in circulation, calling them Clade I, Clade II and Clade III.

What names are people suggesting?

The search for a new name, launched on Tuesday, must respect at least two rules: the avoidance of geographical connotations (remember when the so-called Kent COVID-19 variant found in the UK was renamed Alpha?) and the prevention of certain categories - including both people and animals - from being discriminated against.

Within these boundaries, people have been getting creative.

Like in any renaming open call worthy of respect on the Internet, someone has suggested a version of the classic Boaty McBoatface (the name the public voted for to christen a British polar research vessel in 2016 later named the RRS Sir David Attenborough) - in this case, Poxy McPoxface.

The name "TRUMP-22" also made its appearance on the list of suggestions, as a user suggests to name the virus after the former US president who had called COVID-19 the "Chinese virus," but which its author says stands for "Toxic Rash of Unrecognised Mysterious Provenance of 2022".

Inspired by COVID-19, some have suggested OPOXID-22 (this one submitted by Harvard Medical School emergency physician Jeremy Faust) and POXVID-22.

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Other suggestions include "climber pox" (because monkeys are known to be good climbers, says its author, somehow missing the point of breaking the tie between the virus and non-human primates), "mapox" (man + animal pox), "Orthopox-22" and "Magnuspox," in honour of the virologist who discovered the virus, Preben von Magnus.

Other more dignified suggestions, like "Mpox" - submitted by the director of Canada’s men’s health organisation RÉZO Samuel Miriello - are proving quite popular and are likely to be on the shortlist for the WHO’s final decision.

But for now, the process of renaming the virus remains open for suggestions.

Meanwhile, the spread of the virus continues, with more than 35,000 cases reported globally since the beginning of the year.

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