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The disease formerly known as monkeypox has a new name

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The disease monkeypox is getting a new name. It's now mpox - an echo of the original but less stigmatizing, according to advocates who've been calling for the name change. NPR's Pien Huang reports.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Monkeypox is a disease that was first seen in research monkeys in 1958. But monkeys are not the problem in the current global outbreak. And Dr. Ifeanyi Nsofor, a public health physician based in Abuja, Nigeria, says the name monkeypox has been causing trouble.

IFEANYI NSOFOR: For as long as we can remember, monkey has been, unfortunately, associated with Africans, Black people. So when you say monkeypox, people automatically would assume that it's an African disease. So that was what made it stigmatizing against Africans and people of Black origin.

HUANG: That's why the World Health Organization shortened monkeypox to mpox. Nsofor says it's a good name because it's concise and it's clear.

NSOFOR: The pox in mpox really gives the right impression that the disease comes as a pox, you know, in people's skin.

HUANG: The WHO says monkeypox will be phased out over the next year and mpox will remain as the permanent name. Renaming a disease can take years. This process was fast-tracked over several months, though the name change comes at a time when cases have greatly declined in the U.S. and globally.

NSOFOR: And to be honest, for something like this, it's never too late. Because although the outbreak of monkeypox for this year has waned - but it's an infectious disease. It may come up again.

HUANG: The renamed mpox follows WHO's guidance for best practices in naming diseases, which states that disease names should not stigmatize places, groups of people or animals. Nsofor says there are other disease names out there that are causing harm.

NSOFOR: There are several diseases that still have names of locations in several countries, especially in low- and middle-income countries.

HUANG: Ebola, the hemorrhagic fever, has forever tarnished the Ebola River, a winding headwater in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Lassa fever has stained the name of the town of Lassa in northeast Nigeria, where the first cases were found. Nsofor says those names have got to change. But as for something like chickenpox...

NSOFOR: (Laughter) Well, so what do we say to the chickens? Well, they are not complaining.

HUANG: For now, he says, that name can stay.

Pien Huang, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS SONG, "SCAR TISSUE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.