World Health Organization is renaming monkeypox, as US leads in mpox cases

Mpox virus

Today, the Biden Harris Administration offered support for the World Health Organization (WHO) announcement that it is renaming monkeypox disease to mpox, but no matter what it is called, the once-rare disease is rapidly spreading throughout the United States.

Global Mpox Outbreak Map

“We welcome the change by the World Health Organization. We must do all we can to break down barriers to public health, and reducing stigma associated with disease is one critical step in our work to end mpox,” said U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH, said 29,325 Americans have been diagnosed with the disease and 15 people in the US have died from it as of November 29, 2022. 

Worldwide, 80,252 cases have been reported in locations that have not historically reported monkeypox while fewer than 1,000 active cases are being tracked in places where is it endemic.

Following a series of consultations with global experts, WHO will begin using a new preferred term “mpox” as a synonym for monkeypox. Both names will be used simultaneously for one year while “monkeypox” is phased out.

When the outbreak of monkeypox expanded earlier this year, racist and stigmatizing language online, in other settings, and in some communities was observed and reported to WHO. In several meetings, public and private, a number of individuals and countries raised concerns and asked WHO to propose a way forward to change the name.

WHO, an agency of the United Nations is the international body responsible for public health including the naming of diseases.

Assigning names to new and, very exceptionally, to existing diseases is the responsibility of WHO under the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) and the WHO Family of International Health Related Classifications through a consultative process which includes WHO Member States.

WHO, in accordance with the ICD update process, held consultations to gather views from a range of experts, as well as countries and the general public, who were invited to submit suggestions for new names.

Based on these consultations, and further discussions with WHO’s Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO recommends the following:

  • Adoption of the new synonym mpox in English for the disease.
  • Mpox will become a preferred term, replacing monkeypox, after a transition period of one year. This serves to mitigate the concerns raised by experts about confusion caused by a name change in the midst of a global outbreak. It also gives time to complete the ICD update process and to update WHO publications.  
  • The synonym mpox will be included in the ICD-10 online in the coming days. It will be a part of the official 2023 release of ICD-11, which is the current global standard for health data, clinical documentation and statistical aggregation.
  • The term “monkeypox” will remain a searchable term in ICD, to match historic information.

Considerations for the recommendations included rationale, scientific appropriateness, extent of current usage, pronounceability, usability in different languages, absence of geographical or zoological references, and the ease of retrieval of historical scientific information.

Usually, the ICD updating process can take up to several years. In this case, the process was accelerated, though following the standard steps.

Leaders in the U.S. have been engaging with stakeholders on a regular basis regarding our shared concerns and have been in close communication with counterparts at the WHO expressing support of an urgent process to change the name and propose a way forward with a new name.

In response to the action by the WHO, federal public health agencies will adopt the mpox name in correspondence with the medical community and the American public from this point forward.

This change from the WHO can help enhance the U.S. response to mpox by using a term that does not conjure bias or stigma and will aid efforts to reach the most impacted communities with a term for the disease that doesn’t act to marginalize individuals from accessing the care, resources, and support they need to protect themselves and others.

Human monkeypox was given its name in 1970, after the virus that causes the disease was discovered in captive monkeys in 1958), before the publication of WHO best practices in naming diseases, published in 2015.

According to the WHO’s best practices, new disease names should be given with the aim to minimize the unnecessary negative impact of names on trade, travel, tourism or animal welfare, and avoid causing offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups.

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