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NYC asks WHO to rename monkeypox to avoid stigmatization

July 27, 2022

NYC health commissioner Ashwin Vasan pointed to "the painful and racist history" which the terminology evoked "for communities of color" in a letter to WHO.

A man shows a photo of monkeypox rash on his smartphone
NYC has registered nearly 1,100 monkeypox casesImage: Yuki Iwamura/Getty Images

New York City has written to the WHO to act immediately to rename the monkeypox virus, out of concern for the "devastating and stigmatizing effects" the name might have on patients from vulnerable communities.

In a letter to the World Health Organization (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, NYC health commissioner Ashwin Vasan said that patients might hold off on seeking care given the stigma of the name of the disease, which the WHO declared a global health emergency over the weekend.

A world map with sites of monkeypox outbreaks marked
Monkeypox has now spread to dozens of countries

'Monkeypox is a misnomer'

Vasan's letter pointed out the "the painful and racist history" which the terminology evoked "for communities of color."

"Continuing to use the term 'monkeypox' to describe the current outbreak may reignite these traumatic feelings of racism and stigma — particularly for Black people and other people of color, as well as members of the LGBTQIA+ communities," said the letter.

Vasan referred to how AIDS and COVID-19 led to discrimination against certain groups of people.

"Monkeypox is a misnomer as the virus does not originate in monkeys and was only classified as such due to an infection seen in research primates," he wrote.

The name hails from the disease first being discovered when it broke out in colonies of monkeys kept for research in 1958, although the original animal source is not known.

New York City has so far recorded 1,092 monkeypox infections. Currently, the city is administering limited number of doses of the smallpox vaccine Jynneos.

Scientists call for name change

In June, a group of scientists called for an urgent change of name of the virus saying, "continued reference to, and nomenclature of this virus being African is not only inaccurate but is also discriminatory and stigmatizing."

The disease has long been endemic in Central and Western Africa.

The WHO had responded to the scientists by saying that it was "working with partners and experts from around the world on changing the name of the monkeypox virus" and disease it causes.

Tedros: monkeypox "a public health emergency of international concern"

ss/dj (AFP)