Ever since the once-obscure monkeypox began to spread around the world, experts have been warning about the name. Disease names should not stigmatize anything or anyone. But now the first monkeys become victims.
Geneva – Virus from Wuhan, swine flu, monkeypox: what such names for viruses or diseases can cause is well known. When the novel coronavirus spread from Wuhan in China to the world in early 2020, people who were mistaken for Chinese were marginalized in many places. Because of the swine flu in 2009, millions of pigs were slaughtered in many countries, and because of monkeypox, the first monkeys in Brazil have now been attacked with stones and poison – all irrational reactions in the mistaken assumption that one could protect oneself from a new danger by doing so.
The WHO has been pushing for weeks to change the name of monkeypox. But aren’t such catchy names better than combinations of letters and numbers like H1N1 for swine flu or Sars-CoV-2 for the corona virus? “What is easy is not necessarily necessary,” says Richard Neher from the Biozentrum at the University of Basel to the German Press Agency.
He signed a call in June to find neutral names for monkeypox subgroups, not talking about “West Africa” or “Congo Basin” groups. This gives the wrong impression that the recent outbreaks, mainly in Europe, the USA and Brazil, have something to do with Africa, it says. That is discriminatory and stigmatizing. The more than two dozen virologists criticized the fact that photos of African patients were often provided.
Difficult to find a new name
“The problem with the geographical designations is, on the one hand, that they are often incorrect and, on the other hand, that they often lead to disadvantages for the places after which the pathogens are named,” says Neher. For example, avoiding trips to the regions. In addition, countries that monitor diseases well and discover and describe new virus variants, for example, would be penalized if the new variant was then named after the country. The legendary Spanish flu of 1918, for example, was first reported by Spain, but the first cases occurred earlier in the USA, as reported by the US Society for Microbiology (ASM).
The fact that terms like swine flu or the Wuhan virus quickly caught on is human, wrote Susan Hardy, lecturer in social sciences on the University of Sydney website. “Fear needs a name, and naming something suggests that something is being done.” It’s also about looking for scapegoats.
With the new 2009 variant of influenza virus, it was pigs, although the virus can also infect humans and be transmitted from person to person. When it came to the corona virus, it was not only the then US President Donald Trump who spoke of the “Wuhan” or “China virus” to blame Beijing for the spread. He explicitly demanded that China be held accountable.
Since 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) has had guidelines to prevent disease names from having a negative impact on trade, travel, tourism or animal welfare, or potentially pillorying cultural, social, regional or ethnic groups.
But natural hosts are rodents – not monkeys
The monkeypox virus is so named because it was first detected in monkeys in Denmark in the 1950s. It could also have been called Danish virus, like the Marburg virus, so named because it was identified in the Hessian city in the 1960s. In the case of monkeypox, it is now clear that monkeys – like humans – can become infected. But natural hosts are rodents. In the recent spread, the virus is transmitted through close human-to-human contact and is unrelated to monkeys.
A panel of hundreds of virologists (ICTV) is responsible for the virus designation. They also named the Sars-CoV-2 coronavirus. Disease names are decided by the WHO. She named the disease Covid-19 caused by Sars-CoV-2.
Maybe it can protect one or the other monkey if the name is changed. But monkeys have also been attacked during yellow fever outbreaks in Brazil.
The stigmatization and discrimination of those affected by a disease is another matter entirely. The immunodeficiency first found in gay men in the USA in the 1980s was initially called Grid – for gay-related immune deficiency. Although it has long been known that the disease is by no means limited to gay men, changing the name to AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) initially had little effect. For many years, people kept away from gay people for fear of contagion. dpa