THE MONKEYPOX outbreak is infecting people in Europe and the Americas in a way not seen before.
Health officials say that the disease has so far appeared to disproportionately affect gay and bisexual men – otherwise known as “men who have sex with men” (MSM).
But a GP has cautioned against seeing monkeypox in a similar light to HIV, which could have harmful consequences.
Dr Ranj Singh, an NHS doctor and TV personality, said “we definitely shouldn’t echo the ridiculously inaccurate hysteria of HIV being a ‘gay disease’”.
Andrew Lee, a professor of Public Health at the University of Sheffield, agreed that “stigma won’t help” – as we “know too well from our experience with HIV”.
There have been under 200 cases of monkeypox detected globally by the World Health Organization (WHO) in places considered unusual.
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While monkeypox has been causing outbreaks in Africa for years – meaning it is endemic there – it is extremely rare outside of the region.
Now, countries including the UK, US, Canada, Australia, Spain and many more countries in Europe are reporting cases every day.
More cases in men
UK health officials report that gay and bisexual men should be more alert to the symptoms of the virus, given that it is occuring more in their demographic.
But that does not mean “this disease only affects men who have sex with men”.
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There are a number of reasons why this group of people may be at the forefront of the outbreak.
For example, the World Health Organization says it may be because they are more likely to seek medical attention for symptoms.
The agency states: “The reason we are currently hearing more reports of cases of monkeypox in communities of men who have sex with men may be because of positive health seeking behaviour in this demographic.”
Dr Sigh said it’s possible that the “networks of MSM who may have multiple intimate contacts” has allowed the virus to spread easier among this group of people.
However, he added: “We have to be careful here because this doesn’t mean MSM are at fault at all."
In an article for gay magazine Attitude, he said: “It may just be that MSM networks have incidentally presented the virus with an ideal storm of conditions in which to multiply.”
He added that “this community should definitely be on increased alert”.
Meanwhile, Prof Lee said “we need to get across the message that monkeypox is not a disease of men who have sex with men”.
He wrote in The Conversation: “It is not about sexuality: people tend to be infected through close physical contact and it does not have to be sexual in nature.”
Physical touch, or handling objects that an infected person has, such as bedding or clothes, can lead to infection.
Prof Lee said: "It could just as easily have been an outbreak in a heterosexual friendship network, or a group of sports people, or occupational group, or other social groups.”
Prof Lee explained the dangers of labelling monkeypox as a “gay disease”.
Firstly, people may fail to realise they are at risk of catching it, if they are straight.
Secondly, it risks creating a stigma, which in turn could lead to more spread.
Prof Lee said: “There are lessons we need to learn from the HIV/Aids pandemic.
“Some of the stigma was driven by deeply held religious and cultural beliefs in society that unfairly equated their sexuality with notions of immorality and negative stereotypes of promiscuity.
“Gay and bisexual men were blamed as the source and cause of HIV spread, even though it was also spread through other routes…
“This, in turn, had serious consequences for the people affected, especially on their mental and emotional wellbeing.”
Dr Boghuma Kabisen Titanji, an infectious disease physician and virologist at Emory University in Atlanta, drew on parallels with HIV to show the risks of stigmatising monkeypox.
She wrote in PLOS Blogs: "Cases [of HIV] were under-reported in the early days of the epidemic as individuals who contracted the virus went underground instead of seeking medical care.
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"This resulted in many missed opportunities to quickly learn about the infection, understand its transmission and importantly, provide targeted public health interventions to curb its spread.
"Instead, individuals in the group most affected at the time were blamed for their own suffering and ostracized as purveyors of disease."
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