LGBTQ+ community worries about monkeypox stigma

MADISON, Wis. — The Wisconsin Department of Health Services announced new expanded eligibility for the monkeypox vaccine, something one group in particular has been desperately waiting for.

The shot will now be available to gay, bisexual, transgender, and any other men who have sex with men who have had multiple sexual partners in the last 14 days, among several other groups.

As of Thursday, more than 20,600 cases have been reported in 77 countries worldwide. In the U.S., almost all of the nearly 4,700 cases have been reported in men who have sex with other men.

“Think of it this way: the route of transmission for this virus is skin-to-skin contact. Men who have sex with men have been the more vulnerable because of intimate contact that they might have with one another, that can lead to transmission of something that is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact,” said Dr. Ajay Sethi, an epidemiologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Here in Wisconsin, 14 cases have been reported, but to protect confidentiality, DHS has not released any data on how many of these cases have been reported in gay men.

But with nationwide data indicating that the outbreak of the disease is affecting mainly men in the LGBTQ+ community, some have raised concerns about if the disease is being taken as seriously as it should be and if its connection to the community could cause an uptick in homophobia.

“Right now, because of the community that it’s been spreading in, there’s this association of it in the gay community, but really there’s already been cases in people outside of that community,” said AJ Hardie, the program director at OutReach LGBTQ+ Community Center. “Focusing on just how it impacts this one community or talking about it as a problem of this one community can cause a lot of harm in many ways.”

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While gay men are at a significantly higher risk of contracting the disease, Dr. Sethi says everyone should be paying attention to monkeypox.

“Most people don’t have to be panicked, but everybody should be concerned,” said Dr. Sethi. “You may not be at risk right now, but you may be in the future if this virus continues to spread in our communities. We all have skin, so we’re all vulnerable to this infection.”

For those who lived through the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 90s, some of this may sound familiar.

“We can really look at a lot of the lessons that people learned from the HIV/AIDS epidemic,” said Hardie. “Framing discussions around a disease as only affecting a certain group of people can be really harmful both to the people in that group and then to the broader community that suddenly thinks, ‘Oh, I don’t have to worry about that. That’s just a gay men’s problem.’”

Dr. Sethi says the stigma around diseases associated with the LGBTQ+ community can cause people who may be infected to avoid reporting their symptoms.

“If somebody has infections but that infection and this disease right now is mostly circulating in gay men, I can imagine some people might have a hard time seeking healthcare for their infection if they’re not open about their gender identity or sexual identity,” said Dr. Sethi.

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Some are also concerned that this stigma could cause a rise in homophobic and anti-LGBTQ+ attacks.

“Especially when we look at the increase in the last year or so, and especially in the last Pride Month, with the visible number of attacks and violence directed toward the LGBTQ community, I think it’s especially concerning,” said Hardie.

But despite the stigma, many in the LGBTQ+ community are turning their focus toward prevention.

Hardie says people in the LGBTQ+ community in Wisconsin want the vaccine for monkeypox.

“The main concerns I’ve been hearing from people are about vaccination and when people are going to be able to get vaccinated,” said Hardie.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration signed off on the distribution of nearly 800,000 monkeypox vaccines in order to meet the increased demand. For Wisconsin, this means 743 people will be able to get the two-dose vaccine.

RELATED: Eligibility expanded for monkeypox vaccine in Wisconsin

“We have a vaccine available, but the supply is limited. The goal here is to ramp up that supply so that if the virus spreads more, people can get vaccinated,” said Dr. Sethi.

Because of its long incubation period of around 12 days, the monkeypox vaccine can be administered after infection and will still provide protection. In addition, the smallpox vaccine has also been shown to be somewhat effective against monkeypox.

Beyond getting vaccinated, there are other things that those in a high-risk category can do to protect themselves, ranging from practicing safe sex to thinking about clothing choices when in close contact with others.

“If you’re going to be going out to a club or somewhere like that, think through the different levels of protection that you may want to have, which can be things just like wearing long sleeves instead of a tank top,” said Hardie.

If you think you may have monkeypox, you should see a doctor to get tested right away and make sure to isolate and limit physical contact with others. This includes sharing fabric items like towels, sheets and clothes which can also spread the virus.