Here’s Why We Should Stop Calling It “Monkeypox”

There have been many problems in America’s futile efforts to prevent the monkeypox epidemic from spreading.

Vaccine stocks have not been released, bureaucracy has delayed production, distribution has been haphazard, treatments have been nearly impossible to find (again due to government bureaucracy) and doctors have not received adequate information, which led to many patients being misdirected or misdiagnosed.

In short, it’s been an oddly familiar mess. But there’s a part of this fiasco that hasn’t been so widely reported: we don’t even call the virus by name.

It’s not monkeypox. It’s orthopox. And here’s why it matters.

1. This is wrong.

In 1958, Danish scientists detected a new strain of orthopoxvirus. They called it “monkey pox” because they found it in laboratory primates. But in nature, the virus does not circulate among monkeys but among rodents (“dormes, rope squirrels and pocket rats”, reports the new yorker). That’s why for decades it was confined primarily to people bitten by animals, hunters and, in 2003, Americans who came into contact with infected prairie dogs, who in turn contracted the virus. bagged rats imported from Ghana.

Now, if it was a simple mistake, it wouldn’t matter so much. But it is also a mistake with very unfortunate consequences.

2. African monkeys? No.

First, as monkeypox spreads among broader segments of the American population – which it almost certainly does – we will hear the familiar racist and nationalist associations of this virus with “outsiders” and countries. where he is from. And in that regard, calling it a nasty disease transmitted by African monkeys is problematic, to say the least.

The associations of blacks and/or Africans with monkeys, monkeys, etc. are among the ugliest aspects of American racism. They are full of pseudo-science about genetic differences between “races” and the inferiority of dark-skinned people to lighter-skinned people. The potential for stigmatization of Africa, black bodies and people of color is huge and obvious.

Am I overreacting here? I do not think so. We saw this same dynamic in the 1980s with AIDS, which first appeared in humans in the 1920s, in the Congolese colonial town then called Léopoldville, now Kinshasa.

Even before this fact was definitively established, racist portrayals of African sexual voracity appeared in the mainstream American press evoking long-held pernicious myths about Africa (the “Dark Continent”) as a place of savagery and of illness. (Dark-skinned Haitians were further stigmatized as carriers of the disease.) Much of this rhetoric resembled 19th-century hysteria over African “venereal diseases” and resurfaced in outrage among Republicans in the face of President Barack Obama’s efforts to contain the Ebola virus, which, though few remember it now, was a central issue in the 2014 midterm elections.

We risk seeing a similar process unfold now. As we saw with the early use of the term “Wuhan coronavirus” in 2020, it is very easy for xenophobes and demagogues to use terminology that enrages their nativist base and “othering” a disease. Luckily, no one is (yet) calling it the “Central African monkeypox”, but it could only be a matter of time before some reactionary circles adopt the expression.

Now, again, if the term “monkeypox” really reflected a biological reality, some might say we’re stuck with it. But this is not the case; the term is incorrect. And since it is steeped in racist associations and colonialist history, it should be discarded.

…as monkeypox spreads among wider segments of the American population – which it almost certainly will – we will hear the familiar racist and nationalist associations of this virus with “outsiders” and countries where he is from.

3. Stigmatizing a disease does not help public health.

It is also pointless to associate an infectious disease with an animal, especially when it is spread, in part, through sexual activity, and especially when that sexual activity is already stigmatized, such as gay sex.

For now, Dr. Anthony Fauci said on July 26 that the more than 3,500 cases of orthopox in the United States are “about 99% in men who have sex with men.” We’ll see how long that lasts – unlike HIV, orthopax should be just as transmissible in heterosexual intimacy (you can get it from cuddling, massaging, sharing sheets or dancing around; no fluids bodily required), and is likely to jump to straight communities soon.

Yet today it is a widespread disease among sexually active gay men, and it reinforces the stigma against us to call it “monkey pox”.

This is true even within gay communities. I can say, anecdotally, that all my gay friends talk about this threat and take it very seriously. But the name “monkeypox” doesn’t help, it associates the virus with “animal” behavior. It’s embarassing. No wonder many of us just call it smallpox or mpox. Nobody wants to be called a monkey.

That’s especially true at this historic moment, as the LGBTQ community watches our hard-earned equality unravel, bit by bit. Forgive us for feeling some unwanted deja vu as the new disease threatens us while Republican politicians liken us to pedophiles and deny the dignity of our intimate relationships.

More generally, to the extent that shame and stigma prevent people of any background or identity from seeking testing or treatment, they cause disease to spread. It will be hard enough to get people to care about this new threat after 28 months of COVID. Making it a gay disease with a demeaning name isn’t going to help.

Of course, the language is not the only, or even the first, thing that counts in this fight. Having failed to stop the virus from spreading, public health agencies must now get a head start, which means much wider access to education, vaccinations, testing and treatment.

But in doing this work, let’s not unnecessarily conjure up the specters of racism, homophobia and stigma.

Let’s just call the virus by its name: orthopox.

Leave a Comment