Monkeypox Gets a New Name After Health Experts Argue Connection to Racist Tropes

Monkeypox Gets a New Name After Health Experts Argue Connection to Racist Tropes

Pox virus, illustration. Pox viruses are oval shaped and have double-strand DNA. There are many types of Pox virus including Chickenpox, Monkeypox and Smallpox. Smallpox was eradicated in the 1970's. Infection occurs because of contact with contaminated animals or people and results in a rash or small bumps on the skin.

Monkeypox is getting a new name after the World Health Organization received criticism that the term conjures up racist tropes and only further stigmatizes patients. The new term, mpox, was announced on Monday and will be used interchangeably for a year until monkeypox is phased out.

The change came after a months’-long review process including health experts and public criticism. The virus already compounded the stigma of men who have have sex with men, by its association with AIDs, but experts also say the name “monkeypox” reinforced racist stereotypes. In an open letter, a group of African researchers warned that the failure to find nondiscriminatory and nonstigmatizing nomenclature would only get in the way of efforts to contain the disease.

“WHO will adopt the term mpox in its communications, and encourages others to follow these recommendations, to minimize any ongoing negative impact of the current name and from adoption of the new name,” the health organization said in a statement. However, the word monkeypox will remain searchable in the International Classification of Diseases, to allow access to historical information about the disease, per WHO.

Mpox is slowing down in the United States, with roughly a dozen reported cases each day in November across the country, compared to more than 400 cases last August. But the virus is affecting a small number of children. According to recent data from the CDC, at least 42 kids ages 15 and under have been diagnosed with mpox. These cases have been reported in multiple states, including Oregon, Texas, Maine, Florida, and California.

With 42 confirmed cases of mpox in children, it’s important to remember — despite primarily affecting the men-who-sleep-with-men community — mpox is not solely spread through sexual contact. Anyone can become infected with mpox through skin-to-skin contact or shared items (like clothing or bedding). There are now more than 26,000 confirmed cases of mpox overall in the United States.

The Biden administration declared the mpox outbreak a public health emergency on Aug. 4. In a statement, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said: “Ending the monkeypox outbreak is a critical priority for the Biden-Harris Administration. We are taking our response to the next level by declaring a public health emergency.”

White House National Monkeypox Response Coordinator Robert Fenton said the public health emergency declaration would “allow us to explore additional strategies to get vaccines and treatments more quickly out to impacted communities. And it will allow us to get more data from jurisdictions so we can effectively track and attack this outbreak,” per Politico.

Ahead, find useful information on mpox, including symptoms, treatments, and vaccine options.

What Is Mpox?

Monkeypox, now referred to as mpox, is a very rare disease that had been found primarily in remote parts of Central and West Africa. mpox cases usually arise when people travel to those areas, but what’s different about this outbreak is that these recent cases appear to be spreading among people who didn’t travel to Africa.

Mpox is a viral disease that falls within the family of pox viruses, which includes smallpox and cowpox. Mpox was first discovered in 1958, according to the CDC, among colonies of monkeys that were being kept for research (hence the name), but monkeys aren’t major carriers. It’s usually found among rodents, like rats or squirrels. Those who trap or kill those kinds of animals that are known carriers are more at risk. The virus didn’t spread to humans initially; the first recorded human case was in 1970 in a 9-year-old boy living in a remote part of Congo.

What Are the Symptoms of Mpox?

According to the CDC, traditional symptoms of mpox are similar to smallpox but are milder and include:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Chills
  • Fatigue
  • Rash beginning on the face and hands (one to three days after the fever starts), then spreading to other parts of the body, including the genitals. It initially looks similar to chicken pox or syphilis lesions before forming a scab, which then falls off.

However, recent cases of mpox have differed in symptom arrival and presentation. Traditionally, the early signs of monkeypox included a fever, swollen lymph nodes, headache, and muscle aches followed by a rash resulting in firm lesions, spreading from the face and mouth to the hands and feet, per the CDC.

Recent US cases of mpox have also included a rash, but it has often begun in the genital or anal region, and sometimes in the mouth. The lesions have also begun spreading to areas beyond the face, hands, or feet.

Additionally, “symptoms including fever, malaise, headache, and lymphadenopathy [swollen lymph nodes] have not always occurred before the rash if they have occurred at all,” per the CDC.

Another non-traditional aspect of the recent cases? US patients are reporting pain in and around the anus and rectum, tenesmus (or the feeling that you need to pass a bowel movement even though your bowels are empty), and rectal bleeding. “None of those symptoms were commonly associated with monkeypox before,” per NBC.

“Any patient who meets the suspected case definition should be counseled to implement appropriate transmission precautions,” advised the CDC in its updated guidelines. Precautions for patients who are suspected and confirmed to have been infected include remaining in isolation for the duration of the infectious period (i.e., until all lesions have resolved, the scabs have fallen off, and a fresh layer of intact skin has formed). “Patients who do not require hospitalization but remain potentially infectious to others should isolate at home. This includes abstaining from contact with other persons and pets, and wearing appropriate personal protective equipment (e.g., clothing to cover lesions, face mask) to prevent further spread,” per the CDC.

How Is Mpox Spread?

People usually catch mpox from animals through a bite or scratch. From there, it’s possible to pass on the disease to other people through saliva from coughing or via contact with pus from the rash’s lesions or items such as clothing or bedding that are contaminated with the virus. But recent evidence shows a new possible route of transmission: through sexual contact. Although mpox is typically not spread through sex, most of the recent cases in the UK involve men who’ve had sex with other men. And since it can be spread through contact with bodily fluids, Dr. Susan Hopkins, the United Kingdom Health Security Agency’s chief medical adviser, said, “We are particularly urging men who are gay and bisexual to be aware of any unusual rashes or lesions and to contact a sexual health service without delay.”

That said, “Anyone, regardless of sexual orientation, can spread monkeypox through contact with body fluids, monkeypox sores, or shared items (such as clothing and bedding) that have been contaminated with fluids or sores of a person with monkeypox,” per the CDC. “Monkeypox virus can also spread between people through respiratory droplets typically in a close setting, such as the same household or a healthcare setting.”

Another cause for concern is that the cases in each country are not connected, so scientists are monitoring the outbreak to see if there are other methods of transmission that are causing the virus to spread faster.

What Is Monkeypox Treatment?

The drug tecovirimat, or Tpoxx, is currently the only available drug to treat mpox. However, due to bureaucratic barriers (such as requiring a doctor to fill out a 27-page application for each patient), it has become increasingly difficult to receive it as cases continue to rise. The NYT reported that Tpoxx melts away skin lesions within 24 hours, compared to untreated monkeypox with symptoms that last about two to four weeks.

Most people will get over mpox without needing to be hospitalized. But unfortunately, it can be fatal for one in 10 people who get it, with more severe cases found in children, according to the CDC.

Is There a Mpox Vaccine?

There is no vaccine for mpox exclusively. But the smallpox vaccine, under the brand name Jynneos in the US, is licensed to prevent mpox, which can also be effective after a person is infected, according to the CDC. That being said, after smallpox was eradicated, countries stopped vaccinating children against smallpox. So younger populations who haven’t received the smallpox vaccine don’t have immunity against mpox either.

Do I Need a Mpox Vaccine?

Prior to the recent vaccination rollout announcement, immunizations were only offered to those with known exposure. Now the US vaccination campaign offers the mpox vaccine to anyone with a known or presumed exposure. This includes anyone “who had close physical contact with someone diagnosed with monkeypox, those who know their sexual partner was diagnosed with monkeypox, and men who have sex with men who have recently had multiple sex partners in a venue where there was known to be monkeypox or in an area where monkeypox is spreading,” according to an HHS statement. The vaccine is administered in two doses and given 28 days apart.

How Concerned Should I Be About Mpox?

WHO said mpox was still a global public health emergency as of Nov. 1, 2022. It’s also important to remember that anyone can get mpox through exposure and skin-to-skin contact, not just men who sleep with men.

The CDC advised, “People who may have symptoms of monkeypox, such as unknown rashes or lesions, should contact their healthcare provider for assessment.” Anyone with new lesions related to illnesses like chickenpox, herpes, or syphilis should also be checked for mpox, as symptoms are quite similar, per the CDC.

Risk factors for mpox include in-person contact with someone who has a similar rash or someone that has received a diagnosis of confirmed or suspected monkeypox, anyone who has contact with individuals in a social network experiencing mpox infections, and those who have traveled to countries where cases have been reported. Additionally, people experiencing flu-like symptoms and the above risk factors should self-quarantine. “If a rash does not appear within five days, the illness is unlikely to be monkeypox,” the CDC said.

— Additional reporting by Alexis Jones, Melanie Whyte, and Sara Youngblood Gregory