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As monkeypox spreads, health officials warn of spreading stigma too

The disease is prevalent in the LGBTQ community, but not solely
Posted at 5:56 PM, Aug 04, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-04 17:56:03-04

KENT COUNTY, Mich. — In their efforts to spread information about the monkeypox disease, health officials in Kent County are also being careful not to spread stigma.

With over 6,600 confirmed cases of the disease so far, and the U.S. declaring monkeypox a public health emergency on Thursday, the gay community has been the target of misinformation on how the communicable disease is spread.

Monkeypox isn’t new to infectious disease doctors – it’s closely related to the smallpox disease and is transmissible through close intimate or skin-to-skin contact.

A new study conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center shows that 1-in-5 Americans fear getting monkeypox, but know very little about it.

The World Health Organization says 98% of the monkeypox cases detected since May have been among gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men, and advised men to consider reducing their sexual partners “for the moment.”

Grace Huizenga with the Grand Rapids LGBTQ Healthcare Consortium has been following the disease closely and warns that stigma can change the way people view or react to certain illnesses. Despite its ability to spread among anyone, Huizenga noted the attention the disease is getting because of its prevalence in LGBTQ circles.

“A lot of questions come up, a lot of misinformation because people react to that and are anxious about it,” she said. “To stigmatize a particular population for a particular disease entity, it’s not accurate and it’s not fair to and it’s really not sensitive to all of us in the community.”

Huizenga notes that cervical cancer is caused by a sub-type of the HPV virus and is passed through heterosexual intercourse but is almost never labeled as a heterosexual disease.

Monkeypox is categorized by lesions and a telltale rash that health officials say should be an indicator to go see your doctor. Even prior to rash, a headache, fatigue or back pain can be early symptoms.

But the disease is far less communicable than COVID-19 and health officials don’t share the same level of worry as they did during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’m concerned for at-risk people, I’m not concerned for the general population,” said Cathy Armstrong, a public health program supervisor with the Kent County Health Department. “It’s not respiratory like COVID is, so it’s not as easily transmitted as COVID is.”

Plus, there’s already an approved vaccine to treat monkeypox. The vaccine is made by a Denmark-based company who have struggled to keep up with rising demand for doses. Michigan and the Kent County Health Department have been allocated shots, but likely won’t get anymore until the fall. Armstrong notes that not everyone needs it – only the infected and the at-risk immunocompromised.

“We have a vaccine that’s pretty effective,” she said. “People who are just going grocery shopping, out in the community, they’re not at risk for it. So people who are immunocompromise and people who have intimate contact with it, those are the people that I am concerned about it.”

With school beginning soon, Armstrong isn’t worried about transmission in schools and says parents and students can safely return to the class without much fear of monkeypox.

Huizenga and Armstrong both want to make sure the focus is on defeating the disease, instead of placing blame on a specific community.

“The majority of cases in the United States are indeed men who have sex with men, but because it’s transmitted in so many other ways, we can’t just put them in one group and think they’re the only people at risk, because they’re not,” said Armstrong.