Monkeypox outbreak prompts calls to dispel misconceptions, rename virus

Healthcare leaders and brand experts are trying to quell the spread of the virus as well as misinformation.

The WHO has called monkeypox a global health emergency. (Photo credit: Getty Images).

The monkeypox outbreak has served as one of the first major challenges to global public health infrastructure since the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020.

Since May, thousands of cases have been reported in Europe and the U.S., stretching well beyond the normal occurrences in continental Africa.

The outbreak has made headlines and prompted the World Health Organization, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to deem it a global health emergency

Though progress has been made in recent weeks to slow the spread of the virus, misconceptions have abounded about the nature of monkeypox and even spurred a debate over whether the name itself needs to change

One of the most frustrating misconceptions about monkeypox is that some consider it to be a sexually transmitted infection, according to Dr. Manoj Gandhi, senior medical director of genetic testing services at Thermo Fisher Scientific.

Gandhi said monkeypox can spread through close contact with the lesions that form as a result of infection, which means it can be contagious in several, nonsexual ways. He said he’s been disappointed that the public health messaging thus far hasn’t pushed back hard enough on that specific misconception. 

Gandhi also noted the cultural worry around most cases occurring between men who have sex with men has also mirrored the early, misguided concerns of the 1980s that the HIV/AIDS epidemic was a "gay disease."

The spread of medical misinformation during a period of crisis while healthcare leaders attempt to slow the spread of a disease “muddies the waters” and makes it harder to deal with the issues at hand, he said.

“[Monkeypox] is a virus that we need to deal with. Why should we be worrying about all these other sorts of things and stigmatizing people?” he asked. “People should be more worried about whether or not they should get tested; those are the right things to do when you’re dealing with an outbreak that, in my opinion, could affect anyone.”

The importance of diagnostics in a time like this is not lost on Gandhi. He said that similar to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, getting a better handle on the spread of monkeypox before it becomes uncontrollable starts with implementing better testing capabilities. 

Vaccines offer the most critical support when combating monkeypox, but Gandhi said public health officials need to assess all of their resources available to stem the tide of infections.

“We have to understand what tools we have in the toolbox,” he said. “Testing, especially in the early stages, is a huge part of how you deal with getting patients treated right away. We can put the right quarantining measures in place and then focus on vaccinations.”

Like Gandhi, Aaron Hall, group director of naming at Seigel+Gale, said that the stigmatization of the disease is hampering meaningful efforts to control its spread. However, from a branding perspective, Hall also said that there could be considerable value in renaming the disease altogether.

He said that renaming any disease with negative cultural associations or implications is important, but added that the WHO “missed the boat” by waiting months after the initial outbreak to consider a name change. Hall said once a disease’s name is in the mouths of the people, a renaming effort is unlikely to be successful. 

Instead of using "monkeypox" as the name of the disease, Hall suggested "Mpoxx," could have been an easy substitution to divorce a potentially insensitive name from the focus of the outbreak. Citing the principles of brand architecture, Hall said this type of effort has been undertaken by several companies over the past two years as brands have sought to be more culturally conscious. 

“A lot of brands decided to take a look at all of the products in their portfolio, examine how they are organized and apply visual and verbal identity to all of them so that they make the clearest sense for their customers and reduce confusion,” he said. 

Ahead of the next possible outbreak, Hall urged WHO and other public health officials to examine the list of names of illnesses or diseases that could be offensive to certain populations and consider renaming them so that they don’t gain traction in the minds of the general public.

“This matters for the next time a disease resurfaces,” he said. “You have to do the renaming effort in advance and do it as a wholesale review so that whatever else comes along, people see the correct new name in the press and the media.”

This story first appeared on mmm-online.com. 


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