Here’s why some scientists want to change how we talk about monkeypox

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The World Health Organization supports coming up for a new name for monkeypox amid a call from a group of scientists to use less discriminatory terminology to describe the infections popping up in more and more places around the globe.

Scientists calling for a shift in how we talk about the virus point to its clades — or strains — having pre-existing names relating to African regions (West African and Congo Basin), which are both stigmatizing and inaccurate in reflecting the nature of the current spread of the virus.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said this week that the UN health organization is “working with partners and experts from around the world on changing the name of monkeypox virus, its clades and the disease it causes.”

The scientists believe changing how we communicate about the disease would promote more sharing of knowledge about outbreaks and could help minimize negative impacts.

Emma Hodcroft, a molecular epidemiologist and post-doctoral fellow at the University of Bern’s Institute of Social and Preventive Medicine, is among the scientists calling for changes in how the clades are described.

Hands wearing blue gloves hold a device being used to prepare Monkeypox samples for testing in a lab setting.
A centrifuge device is used to prepare suspected monkeypox samples for testing at the microbiology laboratory of La Paz Hospital in Madrid, earlier this month. Scientists are calling for a shift in how we talk about the virus, noting that current geographical names for certain strains are both stigmatizing and inaccurate. (Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images)

“The main harm here is for African people, who are stigmatized by the association that monkeypox is endemic in humans in the regions where the old clades are named after,” Hodcroft told CBC News in an email.

Hodcroft and the other scientists pointed to media reports that have used stock images of African monkeypox patients as part of coverage of the outbreak occurring in Europe as “an obvious manifestation” of this stigmatization. 

The scientists are proposing that the clades be named numerically in their order of discovery — for example, MPXV 1, MPXV 2 or MPXV 3 — rather than with a geographic identifier.

Not like prior outbreaks

Well over 1,000 monkeypox cases have been confirmed so far in a widening outbreak that has seen the virus detected in more than two dozen countries — including in Canada — where it has not been endemic to date.

But that’s just one way the current outbreak differs from previous ones.

The scientists advocating for the change in clade names point out that the virus is currently spreading from human to human and not via spillover events from animals to humans, as it typically has in the past.

That rings true for Stephen Hoption Cann, a clinical professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health. 

“This is completely different in how it’s spreading,” he told CBC News in an interview, noting prior spread of the virus has been much more limited geographically.

Separate from the consideration of the future name of the virus, WHO is set to meet next week to assess whether the current outbreak represents a public health emergency of international concern.

Where does the current name come from?

According to WHO, the monkeypox virus was first discovered in laboratory monkeys — hence the name — in a Copenhagen research facility in 1958. Human monkeypox was first identified 12 years later.

WHO told CBC News that the name for human monkeypox was assigned before the current best practices for naming disease existed.

Under these naming practices, WHO said the aim is to “minimize unnecessary negative impact” on people, places and cultures, among other considerations.

Rosamund Lewis, WHO’s technical lead for monkeypox, said the process of renaming of the disease “may not be as straightforward” as it would be for a disease that the world is otherwise unfamiliar with.

“It’s a disease that has been commented on, published on for, well, 50 years now or more,” Lewis told CBC News Network in an interview on Friday.

WATCH | Fighting stigma when getting out the message about monkeypox: 

‘Absolutely critical’ to overcome stigma during monkeypox outbreak, says WHO expert

Dr. Rosamund Lewis, WHO technical lead on monkeypox, says it’s crucial to work with affected communities to develop public heath messages without stigmatization.

Heidi Tworek, an associate professor in international history and public policy at the University of British Columbia, believes a renaming push could proceed smoothly, particularly after WHO’s efforts in naming various COVID variants.

“The WHO’s success in renaming COVID variants from place-based into the Greek alphabet shows that it is possible to change how journalists write about a disease,” Tworek told CBC News in an email.

The precise timeline for any renaming of the monkeypox virus is unclear.

According to WHO, “the naming of viruses is the responsibility of the International Committee on the Taxonomy of Viruses.” They said the process to rename the wider group of orthopox virus species — which includes both smallpox and monkeypox —  is already underway.

In terms of changing the names of monkeypox clades, which is what the group of scientists are formally calling for, WHO says it is consulting “with experts and technical advisory groups in poxvirology and viral evolution.”

Hodcroft, the molecular epidemiologist, said the existing naming method may have seemed “reasonable” at one time, but it isn’t now.

“We now know these aren’t even very useful geographical descriptions — cases can be found outside of these areas, and not all places within these areas have cases,” she said.

“What they do leave behind however, is stigma attached to the fear of monkeypox and who may be ‘to blame.’ ” 



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