There have been many things wrong with America’s failed efforts to stop the spread of the monkeypox epidemic.
Vaccine stocks were not released, red tape has delayed production, distribution has been haphazard, treatments have been almost impossible to get (again due to government red tape), and doctors have not received adequate information, which has led many patients to be rejected or misdiagnosed.
In short, it has been an eerily familiar disaster. But there’s one part of this fiasco that hasn’t been as widely reported: We’re not even calling the virus by the right name.
It’s not monkey pox. It is orthopox. And here’s why it’s important.
1. It’s wrong.
In 1958, Danish scientists detected a new strain of the orthopoxvirus. They called it “monkey pox” because they discovered it in laboratory primates. But in the wild, the virus does not circulate among monkeys but among rodents (“dormouses, rope squirrels and bag rats,” reports the new yorker). That’s why, for decades, it was mostly limited to people bitten by animals, hunters and, in 2003, Americans who came into contact with infected prairie dogs, who in turn contracted the virus from rats imported from Ghana.
Now, if this were a mere mistake, it wouldn’t be that big of a deal. But it’s also a mistake with some very unfortunate consequences.
2. Monkeys from Africa? Nope.
First, as monkeypox spreads among broader sectors of the US population, which it almost certainly will, we will hear the familiar racist and nationalistic associations of this virus with “foreigners” and the countries where it originated. And in that sense, characterizing it as a nasty disease spread by monkeys from Africa is, to say the least, problematic.
The associations of black and/or African people with apes, monkeys, etc., are some of the ugliest parts of American racism. They are full of pseudoscience about genetic differences between “races” and the inferiority of darker-skinned versus lighter-skinned people. The potential to stigmatize Africa, black bodies, and people of color is huge and obvious.
Am I exaggerating here? I do not think. We saw this same dynamic in the 1980s with regard to AIDS, which first appeared in humans in the 1920s, in the Congolese colonial city then called Leopoldville, now known as Kinshasa.
Even before this fact was definitively established, racist depictions of African sexual voracity appeared in the mainstream American media, evoking long-standing and pernicious myths of Africa (the “dark continent”) as a place of savagery and disease. (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 Republican outrage at efforts of President Barack Obama to contain the Ebola virus, which, though few now remember, was a central issue in the 2014 midterm elections.
We are in danger of a similar process unfolding now. As we saw with the early use of the phrase “Wuhan coronavirus” in 2020, it is all too easy for xenophobes and demagogues to use terminology that angers their nativist base and “otherizes” a disease. Fortunately, no one is (yet) calling this “Central African monkeypox,” but it might only be a matter of time before some reactionary circles adopt the phrase.
Now again, if the term “monkeypox” really did reflect some biological reality, some might argue that we’re stuck with it. But that is not the case; the term is inaccurate. And since it is steeped in racist associations and colonialist history, it should be scrapped.
“…as monkeypox spreads among broader sectors of the US population, which it almost certainly will, we will hear the familiar racist and nationalistic associations of this virus with ‘aliens’ and the countries where it originated. ”
3. Stigmatizing a disease does not help public health.
It also doesn’t help to associate an infectious disease with an animal, especially when it spreads, in part, through sexual activity, and especially when that sexual activity is already stigmatized, as gay sex is.
So far, Dr. Anthony Fauci said on July 26 that the more than 3,500 orthopox cases in the United States are “about 99 percent among men who have sex with men.” We’ll see how long that lasts: Unlike HIV, orthopax should be just as transmissible in heterosexual intimacy (can be contracted by fondling, massaging, sharing sheets, or dancing closely; no body fluids required), and likely to jump into straight communities. early.
Still, this is a common disease among sexually active gay men today, and it adds to the stigma against us by calling it “monkey pox.”
That 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 “monkey pox” doesn’t help, it associates the virus with “animal” behavior. It is shameful. No wonder many of us call it smallpox or mpox. Nobody wants to be called a monkey.
That is particularly true at this moment in history, as the LGBTQ community is seeing our hard-fought equality stripped away, bit by bit, intolerantly. Forgive us for feeling a little unwanted déjà vu, as the new disease threatens us while Republican politicians compare us to child molesters and deny the dignity of our intimate relationships.
More broadly, to the extent that shame and stigma prevent people of any background or identity from getting tested or treated, they cause more disease to spread. It’s going to be pretty hard 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, language is not the only thing, or even the main thing, that matters in this fight. Having failed to stop the spread of the virus, public health agencies must now step up, and that means much broader access to education, vaccination, testing and treatment.
But in doing that work, let us not unnecessarily evoke the specters of racism, homophobia, and stigma.
Let’s call the virus by its name: orthopox.