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‘Discriminatory and stigmatizing’: Scientists push to rename monkeypox viruses

'Discriminatory and stigmatizing': Scientists push to rename monkeypox viruses
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A A group of scientists from Africa and beyond are urging the scientific community and global health officials to abandon the stigmatizing language used to differentiate viruses from monkeypox, and even advocate renaming the virus itself.

In a stand posted on Friday, the group proposal to quit the existing names of the monkeypox virus clades – West Africa and the Congo Basin – and replacing them with numbers, claiming that the current names are discriminatory.

“In the context of the current global epidemic, the continued reference and nomenclature of this African virus is not only inaccurate, but also discriminatory and stigmatizing,” wrote more than two dozen scientists.

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Christian Happi, director of the African Center of Excellence for Infectious Disease Genomics at Redeemer University in Ede, Nigeria, was a key driver behind the proposal.

“If SARS-CoV-2, for example, was not named Wuhan virus… then the question is why do we have a virus or clade named after a specific geographic location in Africa and then by extension that extends to the people in those areas,” Happi told STAT. “If we are to go by geographic location, we should name all viruses by geographic location.”

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Happi also expressed anger at the way the outbreak is portrayed in mainstream media, noting that photos of African children with monkeypox lesions were used to illustrate stories about an outbreak that was spreading among men. having sex with men in countries around the world. North.

“We find it very discriminatory, we find it very stigmatizing and to some extent … I find it very racist,” he said. “The mainstream media, instead of showing pictures of people with injuries, who are white males, continues to put forward pictures of children in Africa and Africans. And there’s no connection .

A World Health Organization official, who would be involved in any overhaul of clade names, said on Saturday that the agency was supportive of the idea.

“There is broad support for this,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, who leads the Emerging Diseases and Zoonoses Unit in the WHO Health Emergencies Programme.

The WHO and the scientific community can effectively rename clades by agreeing on alternative terms and starting to use them – in official statements, scientific articles and interviews with journalists. This is how a cumbersome naming process for SARS-CoV-2 variants was replaced by a system to assign variants to the name of a letter of the Greek alphabet, such as Alpha and Omicron.

Happi said the group behind the call had consulted widely on the idea and encountered no objections. “There is buy-in from the global community,” he said. “I think it’s high time for us to make this gesture.”

Renaming the virus itself, however, is beyond the purview of the WHO. That power belongs to an organization known as the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses, which also gave its name to SARS-CoV-2. The WHO, on the other hand, has come up with the name of the disease caused by the virus, Covid-19.

Van Kerkhove said an ICTV subcommittee focused on the poxvirus family “was discussing renaming poxviruses in the coming months.”

The use of geographical names (think Rift Valley fever) or individual names (think Epstein-Barr virus) for viruses has been frowned upon for some time. Even in 1976, scientists who investigated a mysterious and deadly outbreak in a place called Yambuku in the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire) decided against name the virus that caused it after the settlement, because that would be stigmatizing.

Today, even their compromise – Ebola, after a nearby river – could be seen as going against advice on best practices on the naming of diseases that the WHO published in 2015 in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Organization for Animal Health.

Monkeypox infections have historically been limited to West and Central Africa, where the virus is endemic in some animals. Until recently, cases seen outside of these countries were rare and involved travelers or their close contacts.

But in mid-May, health authorities in the UK announced that they had detected a number of cases in people with no history of travel to endemic countries. Since they sent out that alert, over 1,500 cases have been detected in over 40 countries where monkeypox viruses are not typically found. The current unprecedented spread in these regions – and the subsequent media coverage – has led scientists to call for a change in the way viruses are described.

“That was led by colleagues in Africa, so South Africa and Nigeria, who felt that we needed a new set of names that neutrally and objectively can be used to refer to these different genotypic variants of the virus,” Richard said. Neher, associate professor at the University of Basel in Switzerland. Neher, whose field is viral evolution, was a signatory to the proposal.

The genomic epidemiology of the monkeypox virus. (next strain)

They suggested that viruses belonging to what is now known as the Congo Basin clade – typically found in several central African countries – are known as clade 1. The current clade of West Africa would be split into two designations, with the large multi-country outbreak that is currently underway belonging to what would be known as clade 3. Additionally, they suggest that an “h” be affixed to the front of the abbreviated form of the virus – MPXV – to signify that clade 3 viruses are transmitted from person to person. In endemic countries in Africa, it is more common for monkeypox to be transmitted from animal to animal, with limited human-to-human transmission, mainly among household contacts.

“The hope is that just having that neutral 1, 2, 3 [system] we would have a more precise breakdown that is unrelated to where it has been sampled in the past,” said Neher, who also expressed confidence that the new names will pick up.

This story has been updated with an additional comment.


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