The naming of diseases has long been contentious and not just in Africa. In the first months after its emergence in China, the illness we call Covid-19 was unofficially dubbed “the Wuhan virus,” a designation that gained currency on social media before finding its way into the mainstream. What happened next was not entirely surprising: Violence against Asians surged in the United States and other countries. Business at Chinese restaurants evaporated. President Donald Trump repeatedly referred to the disease as “the China virus,” long after the W.H.O. had given the disease its current, banal-sounding moniker.
The virus naming process, established in 2015, seeks to “minimize unnecessary negative impact of disease names on trade, travel, tourism or animal welfare, and avoid causing offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups,” the W.H.O. wrote at the time.
But these so-called best practices for naming new infectious diseases do not affect existing names that critics say have negative associations with actual places and people, like Rift Valley Fever, Middle East respiratory syndrome and Ebola, the hemorrhagic fever named for a river in Africa.
Changing existing virus names is another matter. The International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses, which has a painstaking process for categorizing the multitude of known viruses, is responsible for assigning formal, scientific names. These are distinct from the common names of viruses.
Elliot J. Lefkowitz, a professor of microbiology and genetic bioinformatics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the organization’s data secretary, said it could likely take a year before the group’s members considered possible new names for the species into which monkeypox virus would be classified. Any new species name, he said, was likely to incorporate elements of the existing name to maintain a link with the past, a process separate from suggesting a new common name for the virus. “I don’t know of any virus name that’s actually been changed after it’s been used for years,” he said.
For Dr. Perry N. Halkitis, an infectious disease epidemiologist and dean of the Rutgers School of Public Health, the debate surrounding the name monkeypox stirs up painful memories of another virus that arrived in the United States from overseas and prompted widespread fear, shame and finger-pointing. In the summer of 1981, the virus that we now know as H.I.V. first revealed itself through cancerous purple lesions on the bodies of gay men. Researchers called the disease GRID, or gay related immune deficiency. Though the name was never official, it gained traction, and in the years that followed, thousands of gay men would perish, many of them dying alone after being shunned by their families.
“Words carry weight, words carry value,” said Dr. Halkitis, who lost many friends during the early years of the AIDS epidemic. “The problem with those kinds of terms is that they attribute blame, and when you attribute blame your create stigma, which emboldens hate and undermines the well being of people.”