Don’t say monkeypox anymore, say … Well, for the moment, we don’t know. But WHO is brainstorming to “change the name of this virus”, its director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus promised “announcements as soon as possible”. Beyond the single virus, it would also and above all involve changing the name of its different strains, in addition to that of the disease itself. Why such a change when monkeypox has been detected in more than 40 countries?
This consideration mainly concerns the strains of the virus. In fact, they take their name from regions or countries of Africa: we are talking about the West African strain and that of the Congo basin, the latter is much more lethal than its cousin. However, 84% of the new cases were detected this year in Europe and 12% in the American continent. Changing the name would therefore make it possible to reflect the current reality of the disease, while around thirty scientists, many from Africa, asked in early June for “a nomenclature that is neither discriminatory nor stigmatizing”.
“Not really a monkey-related disease”
The very name “monkey vault” is misleading. The current outbreak is due to a strain that is easily transmitted from one human to another, while African cases mainly result from contamination by an animal. Above all, even originally, “it’s not quite a monkey-related disease,” observes virologist Oyewale Tomori. This name is the legacy of the conditions under which the disease was discovered in the 1950s: Danish researchers had discovered it in monkeys in their laboratory. But, in real life, he is usually caught by rodents.
Alongside this misleading side, there are, again, concerns about the stigmatizing nature of such a name. “Monkeys are generally associated with southern countries, especially Africa,” recalls researcher Moses John Bockarie in The Conversation. These concerns are part of a broader context in which Africa has often been targeted as a source of diseases that have spread around the world. “We have seen it above all with AIDS in the 1980s, Ebola during the 2013 epidemic, then with Covid and the alleged” South African variants “”, epidemiologist Oliver Restif remarks to AFP.
As such, image is also important. Oliver Restif regrets that the media have often chosen ill-fated illustrations for their monkeypox articles. These are often “old photographs of African patients”, while the current cases “are much less severe,” he notes.