By Susannah Sudborough
As monkeypox spreads throughout the U.S., public health officials and doctors are concerned about misinformation being shared about the virus.
During the ongoing outbreak in the U.S. and Europe, most cases have been among gay and bisexual men. This has brought back painful memories of the HIV/AIDS outbreak in the 1980s, and fears that the gay community and monkeypox could be similarly stigmatized.
Public health experts and LGBTQ+ activists are now desperately trying to get the message across to the public that sexual orientation does not change one’s susceptibility to monkeypox, The Boston Globe reported Monday.
“This is not a gay disease,” Dr. Ken Mayer, the medical research director of HIV/AIDS research center the Fenway Institute, told the Globe.
Though it’s unclear exactly how, where, or when the current strain of this rare virus began infecting humans, Mayer told the Globe, the first significant instances of major spread are believed to have happened at parties largely attended by gay men in the Canary Islands and Antwerp, Belgium.
As of Monday, there were 559 confirmed cases of monkeypox in the U.S., 29 of which are in Massachusetts, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Monkeypox typically, but not exclusively, spreads through extended skin-to-skin contact. So because it began in men who have sex with men, it has largely stayed among them.
Had the virus first spread among straight people, it would likely have remained among them, Mayer told the Globe.
“It’s the social network phenomenon,” Mayer told the Globe. “It’s who you’re having contact with, not anything about the specific behavior.”
The last time there was a serious outbreak of monkeypox in the U.S. was in 2003. During that outbreak, the virus spread among people of various sexual orientations who were exposed to infected pet prairie dogs, according to the CDC.
Dr. Mary Montgomery, an infectious disease expert at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, told the Globe that if we aren’t able to get the virus under control soon, it will inevitably spread among everyone.
Monkeypox can also be transmitted through contact with clothes or linens that have touched infected rashes, according to the CDC. But airborne transmission, like what we’ve experienced with COVID-19, is unlikely, Mayer told the Globe.
Montgomery told the Globe she advises patients worried about getting monkeypox to avoid crowds and limit sexual contact with many partners. Mayer added that asking potential sexual partners about symptoms such as rashes is also a good idea.
Adrianna Boulin, director of community engagement and impact at Fenway Health, has been trying to raise awareness about the spread of monkeypox since the group got an alert from federal health authorities in May, the Globe reported.
A lot of the public discussion about monkeypox has centered around how to inform different communities about how the virus has primarily spread so far without stigmatizing gay and bisexual men, Boulin told the Globe.
The impacts of the stigmatization of those communities during the HIV/AIDS epidemic are still felt, Boulin told the Globe, and some now feel like history is repeating itself.
“It’s a fine line to make sure that those who seem to be at most risk right now are getting the messaging that they need, but not stigmatizing that population, and not giving those that don’t fall into that social network a false sense of relief,” Montgomery told the Globe.
The Boston Public Health Commission, which is heading the state’s contact tracing efforts for monkeypox cases, has been struggling with this since the beginning of the outbreak despite their successful awareness efforts, the Globe reported.
Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, the commission’s executive director, told the Globe that the current outbreak is causing symptoms similar to other sexually transmitted infections, which has made diagnosis difficult.
“Viruses and bacteria don’t determine if someone is gay or straight,” Ojikutu told the Globe. “They just infect.”
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