Monkeypox outbreaks prompt concern over possible stigma

Various health agencies and doctors have said the monkeypox virus is spreading among men who have sex with men. Now some experts are voicing concern over how the virus is described, saying it may cause stigmatization. Angela Bower reports.

As outbreaks of monkeypox pop up in Canada and around the world, some have voiced concern about how they are being described, with fears over possible stigmatization rising.

That’s especially true when it comes to how some doctors have described the spread of the virus between men who have sex with men — a comparison some have likened to the stigmatization of gay men during the HIV/AIDS crisis, especially in the 1980s and since.

It’s important to approach this with consideration, explains Dr. Troy Grennan, physician lead of the HIV/STI Program at the BC Centre for Disease Control.

“There are key lessons we can learn from the past,” Grennan told CityNews. “We just have to make sure we are recognizing what is happening, but doing it in a way that isn’t judgmental, isn’t stigmatizing, isn’t shaming.”

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Grennan points out the spread of monkeypox isn’t restricted to men who have sex with men, adding nothing in previous outbreaks have indicated that connection.

“There are lessons we can learn from the approaches taken to previous pandemics and outbreaks of various infectious diseases and infections, and hopefully we can learn from those, and particularly learn from some of the mistakes that have been made,” said Grennan. “Now, unfortunately, with the current monkeypox outbreak, some of the coverage has framed it as an infection that is either limited or focused on members of the gay, bisexual, and men who have sex with men community, the GBMSM community.

“There’s a few key things that really need highlighting. Anyone, in any population, can get monkeypox. We cannot or should not be reinforcing stereotypes, stigmatizing, or even worse scapegoating any particular group,” Grennan continued.

“I think it’s very dangerous to label or tie this to a particular group. If we look at all of the past monkeypox outbreaks that we’ve seen, at least the ones that we know about, there’s really nothing to indicate that it’s an infection that only spreads among a particular group.”

John Paul Catungal with the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice at UBC has similar concerns.

“When you stigmatize a disease, people do not want to be associated with it. It can prevent people from seeking treatment. It might prevent people from accessing proper care. And it might also prevent, when it comes time for this to be necessary, contact tracing, if people are unwilling to disclose the contacts they’ve had with people. So it can have ripple effects in terms of public health,” Catungal told CityNews.

He also referenced those issues happening during the HIV/AIDS crisis.

“The portrayal and representation of HIV/AIDS as a gay disease stigmatized all gay people as possible carriers,” Catungal said. “That had ripple effects, in so far it elevated already existing stigma, homophobia against these communities. Also, their abandonment from proper public health and care.”

More than a dozen cases of monkeypox have been confirmed in Canada as of Wednesday. The World Health Organization said earlier this week that cases were also reported in more than “12 Member States that are not endemic for monkeypox virus, across three WHO regions.”

People who have been infected with the monkeypox virus, which is an orthopoxvirus, typically present with symptoms including fever, a rash, and swollen lymph nodes. According to the WHO, the incubation period of the virus can range from five to 21 days.

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