New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Ashwin Vasan sent a letter to the World Health Organization earlier this week urging them to immediately rename the monkeypox virus over fears that the term could lead to increased violence against marginalized communities.
"We have a growing concern for the potentially stigmatizing effects that the messaging around the 'monkeypox' virus can have on vulnerable communities," part of the letter reads.
The letter states that the term is especially concerning "given the stigma it may engender, and the painful and racist history within which terminology like this is rooted for communities of color."
The virus does not originate in monkeys and was only given the term due to an infection seen in research primates, Vasan wrote.
The health commissioner noted that the misinformation was reminiscent of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, during which some people falsely believed the virus had originated in humans after people in Africa engaged in sexual activity with monkeys, a messaging he said “created incalculable harm and stigma for decades to come.”
Vasan wrote that he believes continuing to use the monkeypox terminology could lead to an ignition of similar racism and stigma, particularly against Black people and members of the LGBTQIA+ community, where transmission of the virus has largely been concentrated.
The commissioner also said that it is possible people may avoid seeking out professional care because of the stigma currently surrounding the terminology.
"The language we use in public health matters, and it has tangible effects on the safety of communities most as risk for poor health outcomes," Vasan wrote in his letter. "We know that during the COVID-19 pandemic, hate crimes against Asian and Pacific Islander individuals have exponentially increase, in no small part due to stigmatizing, racist and false names that were associated with the virus in early 2020."
"Words can save lives or put them at further risk; thus the world cannot repeat these mistakes in nomenclature again."
The WHO said that it was working with partners to rename the virus in mid-June, but has yet to formally adopt new language.
The city's top doctor is instead recommending that alternative terminology be adopted, such as "hMPXV" and "MPV." He added that he and others are calling on the WHO to "ensure consistency in naming and reduce confusion to the public."