New York City is asking the World Health Organization to rename the monkeypox virus, warning that it is a misnomer and might stigmatize residents afflicted with the surging disease.
City Health Commissioner Ashwin Vasan said New York finds itself at the epicenter of the outbreak in the U.S., which is one of dozens of non-endemic countries battling the virus. Monkeypox is rarely fatal but causes a painful rash.
“We have a growing concern for the potentially devastating and stigmatizing effects that the messaging around the ‘monkeypox’ virus can have on these already vulnerable communities,” Dr. Vasan told WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in a letter. “NYC joins many public health experts and community leaders who have expressed their serious concern about continuing to exclusively use the term ‘monkeypox’ given the stigma it may engender, and the painful and racist history within which terminology like this is rooted for communities of color.”
He said the term monkeypox doesn’t make a lot of sense anyway, since the virus does not originate in monkeys and was named after infections detected in research primates.
Dr. Vasan said some people prefer the term “hMPXV” or a simpler alternative, “MPV.”
The WHO has renamed diseases in the past to avoid linking them to a certain geographic area or population. For instance, “COVID-19” is a generic name that refers to the coronavirus disease and the year it was discovered.
Dr. Vasan said he would like to see WHO move quickly on the new virus threat, which has caused nearly 3,600 known cases in the U.S., including 900 in New York state.
He said nicknames for COVID-19 fueled bigotry against Asian-Americans during the pandemic and myths about HIV/AIDS caused deep harm in the 1980s.
“We are reminded by fierce advocates who served on the front lines as the HIV/AIDS epidemic emerged, early misinformation about the virus led people to believe that it was spread to humans after people in Africa engaged in sexual activity with monkeys,” Dr. Vasan wrote to Mr. Tedros. “This kind of false messaging created incalculable harm and stigma for decades to come.”