White House responds to concerns that ‘monkeypox’ as a name stigmatizes Black people

"We understand, and I know so many other communities understand, how a name of a virus can really cause harm to that community," White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told theGrio during a briefing.

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The White House on Friday responded to calls from advocates to change the name of monkeypox (MPV) because its moniker is stigmatizing to Black LGBTQ+ people and the Black community more broadly.

As theGrio previously reported, advocates, including the Black LGBTQ+ civil rights group, National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC), expressed concerns around the public framing of the virus that is seeing rising cases throughout the United States. NBJC Executive Director David J. Johns told theGrio that his organization has been calling for the virus to be referred to by its acronym MPV. 

This 2003 electron microscope image made available by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows mature, oval-shaped monkeypox virions, left, and spherical immature virions, right, obtained from a sample of human skin associated with the 2003 prairie dog outbreak. (Cynthia S. Goldsmith, Russell Regner/CDC via AP, file)

Johns highlighted that the name monkeypox is stigmatizing and causes harm to the Black community, particularly Black LGBTQ+ people by “uphold[ing] white supremacy, consciously or otherwise,” given the history of linking Black people to monkeys and apes. 

While the virus, which experts say is currently disproportionately infecting LGBTQ+ populations, has more consistently been found in Africa over the years, particularly in Nigeria, advocates and some scientists have scoffed at the name monkeypox as it suggests that it is exclusively an African disease.

“We’ve already seen media outlets and professionals in journalism talk about monkeypox and Black folks in ways that reignite and reify existing stereotypes,” he said. “All that does is discourage Black folks generally, and Black folks who are more likely to be susceptible … [and] avoid engaging with health professionals such that they can be tested and treated, if necessary.”

When asked by theGrio during Friday’s White House press briefing whether the Biden administration had any discussion around support of changing the name of the virus, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said, “We understand, and I know so many other communities understand, how a name of a virus can really cause harm to that community.” 

Jean-Pierre, the first Black and LGBTQ+ person to serve as a White House press secretary, noted that such harm was seen throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. “That is something that we have seen … this last couple of years, specifically, even when you look at COVID and the different variants,” she added. “And so that is something that is important to note, and to speak to.”

The presidential spokesperson said that she was not aware of any conversations currently being had internally about the name of MPV, but did note that “that is not something we decide on.”

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre speaks during the daily press briefing at the White House on July 29, 2022 in Washington, DC. During the briefing Jean-Pierre took questions on a range of topics including additional Covid-19 vaccines, inflation and the recent floods in eastern Kentucky. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

In June, the World Health Organization, which manages the International Classification of Diseases that determines the final names of human diseases, held an emergency meeting called by its director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, to discuss the organization potentially changing the name; however, no announcement has been made.

According to the health news outlet STAT, any name change to monkeypox will likely not happen any time soon, as a name change is not expected until next year. The International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV), the outlet reported, is currently conducting an overhaul of virus names to ensure they are in compliance with “the way other life forms are officially named.”

Still, “monkeypox” is expected to remain as part of any final name change, according to Colin McInnes, who is the chair of ICTV’s poxvirus subcommittee. The concern is that changing the name could hinder already established medical data.

“By no means have we come to a final decision yet, but certainly I would say the majority of the committee was in favor of retaining the name monkeypox,” said McInnes, “just in terms of the danger of losing out on all the early scientific, epidemiological research that is out there. And obviously, that’s quite a lot.”

There is a chance that an alternative name, like MPV, could be registered with certain committees responsible for approving such a move. However, Rosamund Lewis, WHO’s technical lead for monkeypox, told STAT that no name proposals have been formally made.

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