Following months of calls from global experts, the World Health Organization (WHO) has announced it will assign a new disease name to the current strain of monkeypox spreading around the world. Opening the process to public submissions for the first time, early suggestions for the new disease name include Poxy McPox, Mpox, MOVID-22 and Banepox.
Soon after the current monkeypox outbreak kicked off in early May, infectious disease experts began calling for the disease’s name to be changed. Not only were the two main groupings of the virus (or clades) named after regions in Africa, but it’s been suggested the name monkeypox itself is a stigmatizing misnomer.
By early June the Director-General of the WHO announced name change discussions were underway but nothing happened for two months. Then, an unexpected news release suddenly announced the two main monkeypox viral clades had been renamed.
“Consensus was reached to now refer to the former Congo Basin (Central African) clade as Clade one (I) and the former West African clade as Clade two (II),” the WHO announced in early August. “Additionally, it was agreed that the Clade II consists of two subclades.”
But monkeypox the disease was still called monkeypox …
A recent letter from Ashwin Vasan, commissioner of New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, to the Director-General of WHO urged the renaming of monkeypox to be considered a priority. Vasan said language in public health matters, and he sees real harm in not moving quickly on changing the name of this disease.
“NYC joins many public health experts and community leaders who have expressed their serious concern about continuing to exclusively use the term ‘monkeypox’ given the stigma it may engender, and the painful and racist history within which terminology like this is rooted for communities of color,” Vasan explained. “’Monkeypox’ is a misnomer, as the virus does not originate in monkeys and was only classified as such due to an infection seen in research primates.”
As part of the recent clade announcement, the WHO revealed it would be “holding an open consultation” for new disease names. A web portal has now been opened up to the general public, allowing anyone to propose a new name for monkeypox.
Historically it is rarely a good idea to ask the internet for advice on naming things. The saga of Boaty McBoatface is perhaps the most succinct example of how quickly things can go sideways when serious titles are left to popularity polls.
Of course, the internet being what it is, Poxy McPox has already been submitted as a new name for monkeypox on the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) platform. Other jokey names proposed for the disease include Goblinpox, Banepox, and Otintinpox.
There are some serious submissions on the portal so far, such as Lightpox or Humanpox. One touching submission from a person who suffered from smallpox in their youth suggested the new disease should be be called Bigpox because the associated sores seem larger than what is seen with smallpox.
More science-based proposals include MOVID-22 (MOnkeypox Virus Disease 2022), which takes a similar structure from the naming convention used for COVID-19, or simply Mpox, which simplifies the current title while removing any direct association to monkeys.
Jeremy Faust, a researcher from Harvard Medical School, has offered one of the more straightforward proposals, suggesting OPOXID-22.
“I propose that “orthopoxvirus disease 2022” / “OPOXID-22” (from OrthoPOXvIrus Disease 2022) should be adopted as the new name for the current monkeypox outbreak, and be used as a template for any future outbreaks,” Faust explained in his proposal. “OPOXID-22 is easy to pronounce and reflects what we know about this virus. Additionally, it removes ‘monkey’ from the name, which is likely to not be the animal reservoir for this disease. Additionally, it is specific enough to be distinguishable from other future diseases, both zoonotic or otherwise.”
The ICD platform does have a voting system that allows users to “approve” or “disapprove” of individual submissions. However, the WHO has made clear the final decision will not be subject to a popularity contest, and a “ridiculous” name will not be chosen.
Instead, the final decision will be made “according to their scientific validity, their acceptability, their pronounceability (and) whether they can be used in different languages.” No timeframe has been given as to when the new name for monkeypox will be announced.