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Monkeypox: Shame and stigma will prolong outbreak, campaigners say

An advocacy group for gay and bisexual men has urged the government to secure enough vaccines for those who are vulnerable.

SHAME AND STIGMA surrounding monkeypox in gay and bisexual men will only serve to prolong the current outbreak, an advocacy group has said.

The MPower programme, which is part of HIV Ireland, has said that the government needs to prioritise the procurement of recently approved smallpox vaccines to protect men who have sex with men (MSM), who are particularly at risk of contracting the virus.

The HSE has said that vaccine supply for monkeypox is “low and limited”, and the process for identifying at-risk individuals to be given the jab has not been finalised.

In a statement to The Journal, Adam Shanley, the MPower programme manager, said that gay and bisexual men men are “playing their part” in reducing the spread of monkeypox, and the government must follow suit by ensuring adequate vaccine supplies.

monkeypox-response Rick Bowmer / PA Rick Bowmer / PA / PA

MPower oversees peer-driven, community-level interventions which aim to prevent and reduce the spread of HIV and STIs in the MSM community.

 “We’re bringing all of the knowledge we have to our community so that individuals can make informed choices about their risks and behaviour. Our community is aware of the outbreak and is actively seeking ways that we can help to bring it to an end.

There is no room for stigma or shame. Society should have enough awareness of how damaging stigma is from our recent past in terms of COVID but also from 40 years of HIV and AIDS.

“Our collective energy should be going into ending this outbreak – stigma stifles that.

We have a great legacy of caring for one another in our queer community and we’ll show up for our peers but we need our allies to challenge homophobia, transphobia and any sort of health related stigma during this outbreak and beyond.”

Some 85 cases of the virus have been confirmed here since the beginning of the worldwide outbreak.

For each case notified in Ireland, HSE public health teams are following up close contacts of people while they were infectious. Public health risk assessments have been undertaken, and those who were in contact with the cases are being advised on what to do in the event that they become ill.

A HSE statement issued this week said: “Although any person can get monkeypox following close contact with a case, many countries, including Ireland, have reported that the cases are now predominantly, but not exclusively, in men who self-identify as gay, bisexual or other men who have sex with men.

“As the virus spreads through close contact, the HSE is advising those who self-identify as gbMSM to be alert to any unusual rashes or vesicular lesions on any part of their (or their partner’s) body, especially their genitalia. If they do notice any such changes, they should contact their local STI Clinic or their General Practitioner (GP) for advice.”

The National Immunisation Advisory Committee (NIAC) has advised that two doses of smallpox vaccine should be administered 28 days apart to as many high risk individuals as soon as practicable. The Department of Health confirmed it was adopting this advice on Tuesday.

Global health emergency

Last week, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the monkeypox outbreak in more than 70 countries as a global emergency.

Monkeypox is related to smallpox and cases are usually found in West and Central Africa, with the virus not often spreading elsewhere.

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While the virus can be caught by anyone – and it is not currently defined as a sexually transmitted infection – it can be passed on through intimate contact during sex.

Alex Sparrowhawk, health promotion specialist at the UK-based Terrence Higgins Trust, told the PA news agency: “The data still shows monkeypox is disproportionately affecting gay and bisexual men in the UK.

“We encourage everyone, regardless of your sexuality, to be vigilant about new spots, ulcers and blisters, and are continuing to closely monitor the latest data in order to play our part in providing the latest guidance and health information on monkeypox to empower the communities most affected to best protect their health.”

The disease, which was first discovered in monkeys, is usually mild but can cause severe illness in some cases.

There are fears that stigma and shame surrounding the virus could prevent at-risk people from seeking treatment.

A community meeting organised by MPower this week heard from one man who had contracted monkeypox, who said that because of the outbreak, the MSM community were being told “to just stop having sex”.

The head of the World Health Organisation has advised men at risk of catching monkeypox to consider reducing their number of sexual partners “for the moment”.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has called for those at risk of contracting monkeypox to take steps to protect themselves.

featureimage Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organisation (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP)

“That means making safe choices for yourself and others, for men who have sex with men,” Tedros said.

“This includes, for the moment, reducing your number of sexual partners.”

MPower’s Shanley told this publication: “Many will choose to reduce their sexual partners, some might decide to abstain until the outbreak is under control – individuals will make informed choices about their risk.

“Our community is playing its part in that respect, what we need now is government to play theirs. We need government to prioritise procurement of enough vaccine to protect our community and bring this outbreak under control.”

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