The COVID-19 pandemic derailed decades of improvements in the healthcare system and caused devastation across the globe. And, earlier this year, another zoonotic virus (one that jumped from an animal) threatened to disrupt our carefully established ‘new normal’.
Monkeypox was declared a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC) in August 2022. The much-talked-about virus is in the news again as the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared a new term, “mpox”, as a synonym for monkeypox on Monday.
A decades-old virus with a new name
The monkeypox virus is not a recent epidemic and has been around since the last century, at the very least. First isolated in the late 1950s from a colony of monkeys, the virus belongs to the same genus as variola (the causative agent of smallpox). And it was dubbed ‘monkeypox’ after an outbreak in a group of test monkeys inside a research facility in Copenhagen, Denmark, back in 1958.
While there’s still quite a bit about the monkeypox virus that we don’t know, it hasn’t stopped people from using this disease to further stigmatise certain communities that already face a ton of discrimination in their daily lives. Consequently, a number of individuals and countries raised concerns and asked WHO to propose a way forward to change the name.
Now that WHO has officially declared a change in name, both names — mpox and monkeypox — will be used simultaneously for one year while the latter is phased out. The one-year transition period will help mitigate experts’ concerns about the confusion caused by a name change in the middle of a global outbreak. It also gives time to complete the International Classification of Diseases update process and to update WHO publications.
How the name ‘monkeypox’ played into racial stereotypes
The term monkeypox has always been slightly misleading, considering monkeys have almost nothing to do with the disease or its transmission. This name was inspired by a group of lab monkeys in Denmark, where researchers first identified the virus over half a century ago.
And since the disease was mostly restricted to Africa until recently, critics believed that monkeypox reinforced the dated Western stereotype about Africa being a reservoir of pestilence and sexually transmitted pathogens. Experts said it also played into racist stereotypes, deeply rooted in American culture, that compare Black people to primates, reported The New York Times.
Further, an open letter by two dozen other African scientists warned that failing to find less problematic nomenclature would hamstring efforts to contain the disease.
But the stereotyping and stigmatisation were not just racial but also fuelled hate against the LGBTQ+ community.
Feeding stigma against MSM
The mpox virus had quietly circulated in rural parts of Africa for decades. But the recent outbreak was primarily observed in men who had sex with men on other continents. This placed an additional condemnation for a community already burdened by its association with AIDS.
But to prevent this group from being ostracised, experts have been trying to spread awareness about the fact that sexual activities in MSM are not so different from other groups. However, they suggest that a dense network of small populations is involved in MSM, increasing the chances of spread among a particular group.
In terms of people outside the MSM community, people change partners more frequently and are more likely to have several partners simultaneously, reducing the chances of disease clusters.
Moreover, use of condoms remains limited among the MSM community as there is no possibility of conception. Now, given how experts are still on the fence about monkeypox being an STD, one might argue that condoms may not prevent the disease at all. But experts remind that monkeypox may also spread through oral sex. And since monkeypox pustules primarily dot the anus and genitals, wearing a condom would reduce skin-to-skin contact — likely providing some degree of protection from monkeypox. Furthermore, the virus has been detected in semen as well, leaving room for the possibility of transmission via bodily fluids.
Engaging communities of gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men to raise awareness is essential to protect those most at risk. At the same time, using this as a tool to further discrimination will only defeat the purpose of combating the disease.
Meanwhile, as of last week, 110 member states had reported 81,107 laboratory-confirmed cases and 1,526 probable cases, including 55 deaths. Most cases reported in the past four weeks were from the Americas (92.3%) and Europe (5.8%). The weekly reported new cases globally decreased by 46.1% from November 21 to November 27, WHO reported.
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