Within one minute of scrolling through the topic of ‘monkeypox’ on Twitter this morning, I greeted with deeply misleading headlines about the virus, as well as targeted attacks on queer men. Notably, the Associated Press posted an article last week that claimed “the spread of monkeypox in the U.S could represent the dawn of a new sexually transmitted disease”.
The news that monkeypox was spreading globally was treated as meme-like when it broke onto Western social media. A disease similar to smallpox spreading straight after Covid-19 kept us indoors for two years? God help us. It seemed far away, nothing to worry about.
But then the narrative that it affected queer people more than other groups became more common.
“The acceptance of misinformation around both viruses feels more like a willingness to blame a minority rather than realise that anyone can be affected and take precautions.”
This is somewhat true – according to the World Health Organisation’s top monkeypox expert Dr. Rosamund Lewis, 99% of all the monkeypox cases beyond Africa have been in in men, with 98% of those men having sex with men. The eagerness to label monkeypox as a “gay disease” is eerily familiar to the community as it echoes 90s attitudes to HIV and AIDS. The acceptance of misinformation around both viruses feels more like a willingness to blame a minority rather than realise that anyone can be affected and take precautions.
Last Saturday, the WHO declared the spread of monkeypox to be a global health emergency – its highest alert level. The most recent figures from the Health Surveillance Protection Centre (HSPC) confirmed 69 cases of the disease in Ireland. 16,000 cases were reported globally this year. The strain which is currently spreading is the West African monkeypox, with symptoms including fever, headache, muscle aches, backache, swollen lymph nodes, chills and exhaustion. A rash is also associated with it, similar to chickenpox or syphilis.
“How can the health service abandon the LGBTQ+ community to suffer the consequences of any misinformation that could spread in Ireland?”
Infection spreads through close contact, yet neither the HSE or Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly have commented on this announcement or attempted to signal whether vaccines will become available in Ireland soon. How can the health service abandon the LGBTQ+ community to suffer the consequences of any misinformation that could spread in Ireland?
“Already in the U.S, right-wing government representatives such as Marjorie Taylor Greene have latched onto the narrative that monkeypox is an STI and are questioning how the first two children in the country contracted the disease.”
You might be wondering what I mean by “consequences of misinformation”. Already in the U.S, right-wing government representatives such as Marjorie Taylor Greene have latched onto the narrative that monkeypox is an STI (it isn’t) and are questioning how the first two children in the country contracted the disease. Feeding directly into the “groomer” trend and facilitating hatred towards queer men, I fear it is only a matter of time before LGBTQ+ people are blamed for the spread of monkeypox in the general population. With schools and colleges reopening in September, the Irish Government should be preparing for both waves of disease and misinformation – but they don’t seem to care.
According to the HSPC, vaccinations against monkeypox are being offered “to high or intermediate risk contacts of monkeypox cases identified by the public health teams through contact tracing in the community”. The HSPC continued: “Guidance on vaccination may change depending on further information about the current outbreak, evidence about the vaccine and vaccine supplies.”
“The lines of sexually transmitted disease and “spread through close – including sexual – contact” have been blurred, putting potentially millions of people at risk”
Admittedly, the HSE has partnered with the Gay Health Network, the HPSC and Sexual Health and Crisis Pregnancy Programme to deliver some public health information about the disease, with posters being placed in pub bathrooms and 27,000 attendees at the Pride Block Party at the end of June emailed about the risks. Trained peer volunteers from MPower have been answering people’s questions at events and nights out, and adverts were placed on various social media apps including direct messages to users of dating app Grindr. While I’m delighted to see awareness amongst the community, it’s now on the Government to prevent any kind of stigma and put the infrastructure in place to tackle the disease on a national level.
Monkeypox is currently testing the limitations of public health communication. Already the lines of sexually transmitted disease and “spread through close – including sexual – contact” have been blurred, putting potentially millions of people at risk as they don’t believe they could be. It’s time for the Irish Government to be responsible, before it’s too late.
EDIT: At 15:41 on 26/07/2022, the Department of Health announced that pre-exposure prophylactic vaccination should be offered to gay, bisexual, men who have sex with men (gbMSM) and others at high risk of unprotected exposure. No other announcements have been made about the availability or schedule for the vaccine rollout.