WHO’s Monkeypox Name Game is Mistimed

In Global Advocacy, Global Featured, Vaccinate Our World by Fiona Ip

AIDS Healthcare Foundation today called on the World Health Organization (WHO) to prioritize implementing proven public health measures to curb the global spread of monkeypox, instead of devoting time and energy to changing the name that was given to the virus in 1958.

“WHO says monkeypox must be renamed because it may be perceived as derogatory, but sadly that doesn’t change the fact that this disease was of little concern to the global health establishment in Geneva until people in wealthy countries started getting infected in large numbers – a pattern we have seen before with HIV, Ebola, and COVID-19,” said AHF President Michael Weinstein. “This begs the question, if actions speak louder than words, is WHO’s referendum on the name ‘monkeypox’ nothing more than a token gesture? We need to bring back the basics of public health – education, prevention, training, treatment, and research.”

Homophobia has been far more damaging to public health efforts to combat monkeypox than the name scientists assigned to the virus decades ago—quite logically—because it was first observed in monkeys. The virus has disproportionately affected gay and bisexual men, which has given countries and public health authorities in many jurisdictions cover to ignore the outbreak for far too long, either out of negligence or unwillingness to acknowledge that their populations have men who have sex with men. WHO itself waited 10 weeks to declare monkeypox a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC), and even then it was deadlocked on the decision until Director-General Tedros intervened.

If WHO is serious about decolonizing public health, it would do well to step out of the Geneva bubble and speak out on issues of pervasive systemic racism and discrimination with respect to how the world handles outbreaks, which are of greater immediate consequence in terms of saving lives and preventing illness and suffering than names of viruses. The time to debate scientific and social merits of renaming diseases like monkeypox, chickenpox, bird flu, swine flu, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), West Nile Virus, yellow fever, and others to avoid stigma associated with animals, regions, ethnicity, colors, and so on, will come, but there are more pressing needs at hand.

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