The World Health Organization is officially renaming the emerging viral disease known as monkeypox. On Monday, WHO announced that it will now use the term “mpox” instead, which is likely to be adopted widely by doctors, public health agencies, and others. The change was prompted by criticism from scientists that the old name was inaccurate and potentially stigmatizing.
The campaign to change monkeypox’s name began earlier this year, after the viral disease caused widespread human outbreaks across the globe for the first known time since its discovery in the 1950s. In early June, a group of international scientists penned a lengthy paper arguing for the change. A week later, the WHO said it would find a new moniker, following consultation with experts.
The case for the name swap is simple enough. For one, the disease got the name monkeypox because it was first found in a group of lab monkeys imported from Africa. But in actuality, rodents are thought to be the primary animal hosts of the virus, not primates. Scientists also argued that monkeypox became synonymous with being an “African” disease, with researchers commonly referring to distinct groups, or clades, of the virus by the regions of the continent where they were first found. However, this year (and perhaps even earlier), the disease has spread far beyond Africa, making these references even less useful than they might have been before. According to the WHO, some countries also petitioned for the name change.
This August, the UN agency announced it would change its labeling of monkeypox/mpox variants, switching to a simple numerical system (currently, there are thought to be three clades circulating in the world). And in its announcement Monday, the WHO cited reports of racist and stigmatizing speech online and offline following the global emergence of monkeypox/mpox as one reason for the full name change. The agency also argued that mpox would be easier to adopt widely across different languages.
Often, the scientific terminology used and recommended by the WHO is informally adopted by much of the world. But the name change to mpox will also be incorporated in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), a codebook managed by the agency that’s used worldwide for diagnostic and billing purposes. At the same time, the WHO is recommending a one-year transition period during which both monkeypox and mpox can be used interchangeably—a step meant to reduce confusion about the disease in the midst of the ongoing global outbreak. “Monkeypox” will also remain searchable in the ICD for historical purposes.
There is a distinction between the name of an infectious disease and the germ that causes it, though, such as with covid-19 (the disease) and SARS-CoV-2 (the coronavirus). While the WHO is responsible for naming diseases, the naming of viruses is handled by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV). Unlike the WHO, the ICTV has been reluctant to consider a drastic name change for monkeypox. In August, Colin McInnes, the chairman of the ICTV committee responsible for renaming poxviruses, told STAT News that the group would likely only change the name of the virus to Orthopoxvirus monkeypox. And while the ICTV is still deliberating the decision, that stance appears to remain the majority opinion as of last week.
In any case, this year’s global outbreak of monkeypox/mpox is now firmly on the wane, with many fewer cases reported worldwide in recent weeks than during its peak this summer. It’s possible that the virus will continue to circulate in humans from now on, though, primarily as a sexually transmitted disease.