Is it time to start hoarding the loo rolls?
Over the past week, news that Monkeypox is starting to spread around Europe has reached the headlines. And, the majority of stories are connecting gay men with the spread of the virus, which has led to a rise in homophobia on social media and in public discourse. But, how much attention should we give Monkeypox? Should we be concerned or has COVID-19 made us hypersensitive?
Firstly, its important to mention that Monkeypox is not a new disease; it’s been around for decades (since 1958 to be exact). The first outbreak of the disease was found in Monkeys, hence its name. And. it first spread to humans in 1970 in the Democratic Republic of Congo and a large portion of West Africa.
This is not the first time that Monkeypox has spread beyond Africa. In 2003, the disease which causes a unique skin rash made its way to the United States following the importing of rodents from Africa. The disease then spread to American pets and people. Thankfully all those infected made a full recovery.
So, what’s different this time? Although health professionals are not predicting a COVID-19 style pandemic, there are concerns about the speed in which Monkeypox is spreading. Dr Susan Hopkins, a chief medical adviser from the UK Security Agency (UKHSA) told BBC’s Sunday morning program that “we are detecting more cases on a daily basis.” She continued, “We know there’s been a period of restrictions across Europe, and we don’t know where this infection has come from and how it’s come into Europe. There’s no obvious connection in our cases in the UK to a single event.” There are clearly a lot of unanswered questions regarding the virus, despite it being known to health authorities for decades.
Despite uncertainty, health professionals are suggesting that Monkeypox will not be a major pandemic in the same way that COVID-19 engulfed society – due to the nature of the virus. Dr Michael Heard, from the University of Southampton, explains the “very low” threat on Sky News over the weekend, “Monkeypox requires very close contact to transmit, this can be via respiratory aerosols, often it’s also via skin-to-skin contact, so the very notable blisters and rashes you get as a skin presentation, you can transmit via touching those. So I think the sexual networks we’re seeing here, the transmission is taking place within those sexual networks, but it’s important we don’t stigmatise these communities but of course we do need to raise public health awareness.” Dr Heard is referring to queer men who seem to be contracting the virus disproportionally to others.
Sadly, news that “gay men are spreading the virus” has been plastered all over social media, as well as news corporations. Slowly. Monkeypox is being attributed to being a ‘gay disease’, and is a result of promiscuity. “Again all men. Certain kind of men again, isn’t it?” – says one homophobic comment on a Guardian post. “What on earth are these men up to?” says another, using a sarcastic emoji. The homophobia stemming from these reports are haunting echoes of the AIDs crisis. So, it’s important that the public are educated on the origins of disease, and not scapegoating communities out of frustration and pandemic fatigue.
Since the reports, UKHSA has decided to take action, “We are particularly urging men who are gay and bisexual to be aware of any unusual rashes or lesions and to contact a sexual health service without delay if they have concerns. Please contact clinics ahead of your visit.” Although it’s true that queer men are the most infected group of people at this stage, it does not mean they are responsible for the virus itself. Health professionals and journalists need to separate sexuality with the act of sex. Sexual contact is spreading Monkeypox, not homosexuality.
However, for many people who are just recovering from the anxiety and panic of coronavirus, Monkeypox has triggered the general public. People are starting to get their lives back on track following COVID-19, so it’s inevitable that anxiety and fear is increasing over news of a potential endemic. Despite this, we have a duty to not act in fear, and to not give in to toxic scapegoating.
“Monkeypox is not a gay disease,” said the World Health Organisation, in response to rising discrimination. “It is unfortunate that this still needs to be said, highlighting how little we have learned from previous outbreaks. Stigmatizing groups of people because of a disease is never acceptable. It can be a barrier to ending an outbreak as it may prevent people from seeking care, and lead to undetected spread.”
Everyone is vulnerable to Monkeypox. We must tackle this virus together.