The World Health Organisation Has Set About Renaming ‘Monkeypox’

monkeypox name change

What’s in a name? Well, according to the World Health Organisation, a whole lot.

A group of international health experts has been tasked by the WHO to come up with a new name for the disease as part of an effort to align naming conventions for new diseases with “best practice” approaches.

So far, that group has recently announced that they have come to a decision over what exactly to call the variants of Monkeypox, although they’re still working on a new name for the virus as a whole.

Monkeypox, much like COVID-19, has been splitting into new variants which, as you might recall from the pandemic if you haven’t purposefully and perhaps violently removed all memory of that era from your brain, caused a few issues.

Names like “the South African variant” or “the UK variant” risked provoking discrimination against people from those regions (lord knows the Brits have had a rough go of it recently). In seriousness, sinophobia and racist attacks on people of Asian descent spiked during the pandemic, so it’s not just some abstract idea but one with real-world consequences that we want to try and avoid.

So, what are we calling ‘Monkeypox’ now and what is the WHO saying about the name change? Here’s what you need to know.

Monkeypox Rebrand

There are currently two variants of Monkeypox circulating. They have previously been referred to as the Congo Basin variant and the West African variant.

These will now be termed, sequentially, as ‘Clade One’ and ‘Clade Two’.

Clade Two of the disease has also been identified as having two sub-variants or sub-clades. These will be referred to as ‘Clade Two a’ and ‘Clade Two b’.

Experts at the WHO have agreed to use these terms, with immediate effect, using their Roman numeral expressions. So, Clade One becomes ‘Clade I’ and Clade Two A becomes ‘Clade IIa’.

Interesting, and, uh, What Is a ‘Clade?’

Glad you asked. A clade is another word for variant. It just means an organism that shares a common ancestor. It’s not used exclusively for viruses but it does crop up in virologist talk frequently and, I guess, we’re all kind of virologists now and we better get learning the lingo.

Why Are They Changing the Name?

Partially, it’s to do with wanting to avoid discrimination, as stated above, but it’s also going to be helpful for scientists when discussing the disease and its variants or clades in a global context.

As the WHO writes in its statement clarifying its position on the naming convention:

“Experts in pox virology, evolutionary biology and representatives of research institutes from across the globe reviewed the phylogeny and nomenclature of known and new monkeypox virus variants or clades.

“They discussed the characteristics and evolution of monkeypox virus variants, their apparent phylogenetic and clinical differences, and potential consequences for public health and future virological and evolutionary research.

“The group reached consensus on new nomenclature for the virus clades that is in line with best practices. They agreed on how the virus clades should be recorded and classified on genome sequence repository sites”.

When Are They Renaming Monkeypox?

The WHO is currently taking suggestions for a new name for the virus after expressing a desire to rename it earlier this year.

If you’ve got a good suggestion, you can submit it here (and no, they won’t take ‘Virus McVirusface’).

The disease was named in 1958 when it was first discovered, however, the WHO instituted new best naming practices in 2015. They aim to avoid names that could cause offence to “any cultural, social, national, regional, professional, or ethnic groups.” They also want to “minimise any negative impact on trade, travel, tourism or animal welfare”.

Given that monkeys are often found in Africa and non-western parts of the world, the WHO is concerned that keeping the name would make people think it’s just an African problem. It could also encourage the killing of monkeys and a perception that African people are spreading the disease.

In addition, the name itself doesn’t even make sense as it’s not yet been proven to come from monkeys. Although monkeys do carry it, the original animal thought to have started spreading the disease is most likely rats, according to the WHO.

The WHO is the organisation responsible for re-naming existing diseases, while the International Committee on the Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV) names new viruses specifically. They too are trying to come up with another name.

It’s not clear how long that process will take but we should expect to hear from the WHO soon about what the updated, less discriminatory name will be.

Related: Two New Monkeypox Vaccines Will Be Available in Australia — So Who Needs to Get the Jab?

Related: More Jabs Ahoy: Extra Monkeypox Vaccines Are Coming to Australia

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