Monkeypox is not a ‘gay disease,’ but here’s what experts want you to know

An unidentified man receives a monkeypox vaccination at a clinic in Canada. (Reuters/Christinne Muschi)

News of the growing monkeypox outbreak, from the start, has noted that the virus is disproportionately impacting queer men. That has set off two kinds of alarm bells — about both the disease itself and also the misleading narratives that monkeypox is a “gay disease.”

In response, and in an attempt to inform gay and bisexual men of their risk of contracting the disease, while also warding off stigma, LGBTQ groups began issuing statements last week, stressing that monkeypox can impact “anyone, anywhere.”

“The language used by the media reporting on monkeypox needs to be rooted in science, not stigma,” Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), the world’s first HIV and AIDS services organization, said. “Rhetoric and click-bait headlines that state or imply that monkeypox is a ‘gay’ or ‘bisexual’ disease is dangerous because it misinforms the public about who is at risk and how the virus is spread.”

GLAAD, meanwhile, which was founded in 1985 to combat media misinformation during the AIDS crisis, stated that “media must do their part to elevate information that all communities need to hear to be safe.” The Human Rights Campaign weighed in too, alerting people that the virus “can spread to anyone, anywhere, through close, personal, often skin-to-skin contact,” regardless of how they identify.

Queer men are disproportionally impacted by monkeypox, acknowledges Dr. Jorge Ramallo, a specialist in internal medicine and pediatrics, and board member for GLMA: Health Professionals Advancing LGBTQ Equality (previously known as Gay & Lesbian Medical Association). It’s equally as important, he notes, however, for the public to assess their risk factors based on science and not on hyperbole.

“Once an acquaintance gets sick, it leads to ripples of fear and anxiety within a person’s social circle,” Ramallo tells Yahoo Life. “Acknowledging this worry and having a clear and objective approach is important.”

So, why is monkeypox linked to queer men? And how to offer warnings without fueling stigma?

According to several reports, the recent outbreak of the virus, which had already been in circulation (first recorded in the 1970) is thought to have been traced to two gay raves in Europe.

“What likely happened in this case is that somebody who had monkeypox had a lesion and showed up at a gay rave in Europe, and it spread to those in that social and sexual network,” Gregg Gonsalves, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health and a global health activist, told the New York Times. “And because the virus prefers close physical contact as a means of transmission, it found a very suitable environment for which to propagate itself.”

From there, it spread to other queer men within that social network before finding its way to the U.S. and various clusters around Europe. As more clusters began to appear in queer communities worldwide, headlines appeared that highlighted these numbers, conveying the mistaken impression that only gay or bisexual men are susceptible to monkeypox.

The truth is that monkeypox, which is in the same virus family as smallpox and shares similar symptoms, appears to be spread through direct physical contact with someone with monkeypox symptoms — rashes, scabs, body fluids or items that have come into contact with those things, respiratory secretions from prolonged contact (especially kissing) and from a mother to her fetus.

Spaces like bars, nightclubs and other large gatherings where participants have close intimate contact with one another are all places where the disease is likely to be transmitted.

While the facts may be fueling anti-gay stigma, it’s important to get information and warning to the right people, as one gay sex advice columnist, Dan Savage, pointed out recently. “Early in the AIDS crisis, public health officials and news reporters didn’t raise the alarm about a new disease because they didn’t care about gay or bi men. They didn’t care whether we lived or died,” he said on his podcast, as reported by the Washington Post. “Now, they are failing to raise the alarm because they care about us too much, so much so they don’t want to hurt our feelings or accidentally hand ammo to anti-gay bigots.”

For medical experts, it’s been a tricky balance to inform queer men about their risk without incurring further stigma. But Ramallo says labeling anything a “gay disease” has a detrimental impact.

“The LGBTQ+ community was demonized during the AIDS epidemic, and the specific labeling of HIV as a ‘gay-cancer’ had negative effects lasting years,” he explains. “This labeling led to discrimination in many aspects of everyday life, beyond health care. We must be careful in the language we use and the way a disease is presented, to have a nuanced discussion without demonizing specific groups and risking discrimination or violence.”

One way to do that, he says, is for medical professionals to prioritize discussions around safety and prevention before conflating the cause of the outbreak with sexual identity.

“Each patient’s situation and history may be different,” he says. “Helping patients understand risks and benefits related to this disease is an important yet complicated conversation.”

Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s director of the Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention, recently stressed to The Advocate how important it is that the LGBTQ community remain vigilant.

“Monkeypox can be spread by several ways, including droplets through kissing and touching surfaces, and that could apply to anyone,” Daskalakis said. He recommended practicing safer sex, for example, using a condom, as extra prevention against monkeypox.

Other experts, like Northwestern Medicine’s Dr. Robert L. Murphy, add that monkeypox is “not a sexually transmitted disease in the classic sense.” It is not believed, although it is not yet known for certain, that it is spread through sexual fluids. A level of precaution about any physical contact, then, should be of top concern.

“If you’re not feeling well, stay home,” Daskalakis said. “If you have a rash, stay home and make sure to seek out medical care and pay attention to local public health announcements. You need to be aware if monkeypox might be spreading through your community.

“We’re again in the position of learning about this virus in its new context,” he added, “so it will be vital to follow people who acquire the virus and study them to gain more insight.”

At this time, the CDC said, it’s not known whether it can be spread through semen or vaginal fluids. It is known, however, that people who do not have symptoms of monkeypox cannot spread the virus to others.

As of Tuesday, the CDC noted that there were 560 confirmed cases of monkeypox in the U.S. — though some experts have suggested that the number may be higher, since testing has been limited. Now, thanks in large part to pressure on the CDC from queer-led activist groups like PrEP4All, an HIV prevention access group and Big Pharma watchdog, the Biden administration is expanding monkeypox testing and vaccinations to a greater number of individuals at risk.

Despite the fact that help is on the way, some activists have been criticizing the FDA for taking too long to inspect the new vaccines before they are shipped to the public— especially given the soaring rates of positive cases in areas like New York City, where a new shipment of vaccines arrived on Wednesday.

Monkeypox patients speak out

Meanwhile, some gay men affected by the virus have taken to social media to give first-person accounts of their experiences of the disease.

“This s*** sucks and you don’t want it,” Matt Ford, a gay man who contracted monkeypox, said in a viral TikTok post chronicling his experience. Ford is one of several people on TikTok giving brutally honest accounts of the effects of monkeypox and urging awareness around public safety.

“This is not a gay disease. It can spread to anyone,” Ford tells Yahoo Life. “It’s particularly dangerous for kids and immunocompromised people. That was a huge part of why I spoke out, because I wanted to help decrease that stigma and help with any personal shame people might feel.”

Ford, who is now clear of monkeypox, says he counted at least 20 pimple-like blisters and lesions on his body at the height of his ordeal. He describes it as being “excruciatingly painful,” and had to get painkillers from his doctor just to be able to go to sleep.

“It’s one thing to know there’s a monkeypox outbreak happening,” he explained in one of his videos. “But it’s another to know exactly what that means for someone’s body, and particularly what it means if it happens to a friend or to you.”

Other TikTokers, like one fashion blogger, Maxim Sapozhnikov, have shared updates with their followers about contracting the virus so they won’t feel scared or confused.

“I went to the internet and I saw these terrible pictures of the people with the lesions and for me, it was really scary,” Sapozhnikov explained to SkyNews about why he shared his story publicly. “Also, I’m by myself and I don’t know who I can share that with as well, so I felt a bit alone, and I didn’t know what I should do in this situation.”

Similarly, ThatGayDoctor, a Chicago-based physician and TikToker, documented his experience from start to finish to help spread awareness about the symptoms and to eradicate misconceptions — particularly that monkeypox is spread by recurring sexual encounters.

“If you must know, I actually have not had a sexual partner who’s had signs or symptoms of monkeypox, so it’s thought that I got it elsewhere,” he says in one of his videos. “This virus is spread by close person-to-person contact so, yes, sex is one of those ways. But it can also be a concert or a nightclub or a bar or standing in public transportation that’s super-crowded.”

“I wanted to post about this to spread awareness and remind people to check their bodies,” he said in another video. “I also want to do away with any stigma or embarrassment that anybody might have about getting any form of disease. These things happen.”

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