Nature

Monkey pox reignites fears of stigmatization of gay community

While monkeypox is not considered a sexually transmitted disease and does not exclusively affect homosexuals, a higher prevalence is widely observed in Europe among men who have sex with men. A phenomenon that leads to stigmatization of the gay community and can have a deleterious effect on the prevention and treatment of the disease.

“Monkey pox can be transmitted through the air, why do they only blame gays?”, “Turning monkeypox into a ‘gay problem’ is dangerous”… On the networks social, the occurrences of “Monkeypox+homosexuality” increase in proportion to the number of cases of monkeypox. The link between the disease and the sexual orientation of infected people is increasingly mentioned.

In Europe, more than 7,100 cases have been reported, according to figures from the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) as of July 14. In France, the latest update from Public Health France, dated July 12, established the number of confirmed cases at 912.

Among them, “97% of the cases for which sexual orientation is indicated occurred among men who have sex with men (MSM)”, specifies the National Public Health Agency, which adds that “among the cases for requesting information is available, 75% report having had at least two sexual partners in the three weeks before the onset of symptoms”.

While some people denounce the stigmatization of the gay community, others deplore a cruel lack of prevention.

Highest prevalence among homosexuals

The cases closed are, for the time being, “mainly, but not exclusively, young men who have had sex with men”, indicates the World Health Organization (WHO), adding further that “stigma and discrimination are still unacceptable, and all the more so in the context of this epidemic. We are all concerned”.

A distant cousin of human smallpox, but considered much less dangerous, monkeypox is characterized by rashes – which can appear on the genitals or in the mouth – and can be accompanied by bouts of fever, headaches, throat or pain in the lymph nodes.

Transmission of monkeypox occurs through prolonged skin-to-skin contact with a person with an active lesion, or through prolonged exposure to respiratory droplets from someone with oral lesions. Sexual relations therefore fall, a priori, into this framework of “proximity” between two individuals, regardless of their sexual orientation. Also, if in the overwhelming majority of European and American cases, the patients are homosexual men, they are not the only ones concerned, some cases having also been detected in children and immunocompromised people.

“The HIV/AIDS pandemic (from the end of the 1970s, editor’s note) had also started with the contamination of certain segments of society, in particular the male homosexual communities and people exchanging needles”, explained Professor Antoine Flahault to AFP.

Sexual transmission as such – which could qualify monkeypox as a sexually transmitted disease (STD) – has not been strictly established. Scientists favor the thesis of “close and prolonged contact with an infected person”. Thus, repeats the epidemiologist, “no reason to see [cette maladie] confined to male homosexual communities”.

On the other hand, the highest prevalence among homosexual and bisexual men is well and truly established. The increase in the number of cases within the gay community could be linked to certain propagative events. Since May, sources of contamination have been linked to gay sexual networks. The arrival of monkeypox in Belgium would be linked in particular to the Darklands fetish festival (from May 5 to 8), in Antwerp, to which three cases of contamination have been linked; in Spain, according to Madrid’s regional health chief, 23 cases converge on a gay sauna in the city. The establishment, which had become a monkeypox “cluster”, was forced to close its doors.

Immediate consequence: the gay community is pilloried.

Amalgams and stigmatization

Beyond the disease, which is relatively mild and heals spontaneously in two to three weeks, it is the stigmatization of the homosexual community that worries.

Deputy Director of UNAIDS, Matthew Kavanagh insisted that homophobic amalgams about monkeypox, in addition to being unacceptable, hinder the fight against the spread of the virus. “These stigmas and blame undermine trust and the ability to respond effectively to outbreaks like this,” he told AFP.

The UN agency believes that this type of rhetoric can quickly annihilate science-based and evidence-based efforts to combat the epidemic. Based on its long experience with AIDS, the agency adds that racist or homophobic attacks “create a cycle of fear, which causes people to avoid treatment centers, which limits the scope of efforts to identify cases of infection and encourage ineffective coercive measures”.

The phenomenon is not without reviving the trauma of the AIDS years. “We see there looming a risk inherent in any epidemic”, explains to HuffPost Christophe Broqua, researcher at the CNRS, evoking the systematic search for a culprit through the phenomenon of the “accused victim”. A particularly visible phenomenon during the AIDS epidemic, he says. “We were talking about ‘gay cancer’ and we had drawn up the list of ‘4H’: homosexuals, heroin addicts, hemophiliacs and Haitians”.

The discovery of the clusters, linked to gay circles, has led to several misconceptions about the nature of this virus. Media coverage of the epidemic also bears a large share of responsibility. In the same way that the systematic use of photographs showing black people to illustrate the epidemic of monkeypox in Europe and North America was stigmatizing with regard to African populations, the use of images of the various marches of pride in many European media – especially in Spain – has largely promoted the stigmatization of the LGBTQI+ community.

>> To read also: why the spread of monkeypox in the world is surprising

“Since June 3, France has [912 cas] monkeypox, almost exclusively MSM, but it is difficult to find a specific prevention discourse”, deplored HIV.org, information portal at the service of health professionals and people with HIV in early June. “The French authorities n have, for the moment, not chosen to communicate in the direction of homo and bisexual men, partly for fear of provoking homophobic reactions”.

Indeed, if experts and health agencies agree that communication is essential to limit the scale of the epidemic, it must be done without any group being singled out.

“It is not because there is a statistical reality that calls for targeted responses that stigmatization and discrimination are acceptable”, confirmed to Numerama Camille Spire, president of Aids, an association for the fight against HIV. “They are even extremely harmful in terms of health. Each homophobic remark further distances the people concerned from care. They will not go to consult for fear of being discriminated against again.”

On July 8, the High Authority for Health recommended offering vaccination against monkeypox to exposed groups, and not only to contact cases. A recommendation that the Ministry of Health has indicated to follow in stride. This concerns homosexuals and people reporting multiple sexual partners, prostitutes, as well as “professionals in places of sexual consumption”.

Europe is the region of the world most affected by monkeypox. The European Commission thus announced, on July 18, the purchase of more than 54,500 additional doses of the monkeypox vaccine, worrying about an increase in cases of “nearly 50%” in the European Union. In a week. The WHO Emergency Committee is due to meet on July 21 to determine ways to contain the surge in cases.


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