Fact Check: Monkeypox is not a 'gay disease'

WHO debunks claims that monkeypox is exclusively a 'gay disease' (Images via Getty Images)
WHO debunks claims that monkeypox is exclusively a 'gay disease' (Images via Getty Images)

Amidst the rising cases of monkeypox across the US and other nations, particularly observed in gay and bisexual men alongside other men who have s*x with other men (MSM), the virus has been labeled a 'gay disease.'

In a briefing held on Monday, May 23, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) debunked this claim, explicitly stating that monkeypox isn't a 'gay disease' and that "anyone can develop and spread" it.

CDC and WHO state that monkeypox isn't a 'gay disease'

Andy Seale, an advisor with the HIV, hepatitis and sexually transmitted infections program at the World Health Organization (WHO), said in Monday's QnA session:

"While, for example, we're seeing some cases amongst men who have sex with men, this is not a gay disease as some people on social media have attempted to label it. That's just not the case. Anybody can contract monkeypox through close contact."

Dr. John Brooks, Chief Medical Officer for the CDC's Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention, concurred with Seale. He said that while some groups might have "a greater chance of exposure," that did not mean that the current risk of exposure was limited exclusively to them. He reiterated that anyone could be at risk of contracting and spreading the infection.

Monkeypox often presents itself with symptoms mimicking STDs, like rashes or lesions "mostly in the genital and perianal area," as per Brooks. Seale reasoned that a possible factor contributing to cases being identified particularly within the MSM community could be the fact that they have a higher chance of seeking health services in relation to s*xual health concerns.

The CDC also demystified how the infection spreads, citing close contact with active rashes and airborne transmission via large respiratory droplets as the main ways. However, the latter would require prolonged periods of contact since large respiratory droplets don't travel far in the air.

Brooks said:

"Monkeypox is spread by close personal contact. [It] is not a s*xually transmitted infection in the typical sense, but it can be transmitted during s*xual and intimate contact, as well as with personal contact, shared bedding, and clothing. Anyone can spread [the disease from] contact with body fluid or monkeypox sores or respiratory droplets when close to someone."

The first confirmed case of the virus in the US was a Massachusetts man who recently traveled to Canada. Four other presumed cases were detected in New York City, Florida, and Utah. Every infected person has an international travel history.

Labeling monkeypox as a 'gay disease' leads to stigmatization of the LGBTQ+ community

The misinformed association of the orthopox viral infection with the LGBTQ+ community can be highly damaging and breed stigma. David Hawkins, Executive Director of Montreal's West Island LGBTQ2+ Centre, told CBC:

"The risk and the fear that this is going to be used to stigmatize against the LGBTQ2+ community further, I think that that fear is very real for a lot of people, and I think it's very well-founded in history. We're still recovering from the stigma that came with HIV and AIDS as a community ... This risk is also potentially there for monkeypox if that continues to be a trend."

WHO also warned that "stigmatizing groups of people because of a disease" is absolutely unacceptable. Doing so poses a barrier to ending an outbreak as it can discourage people from seeking care, thus leading to undetected spread.

Andy Seale, for his part, said during the briefing:

"There's a lot of stigma and discrimination that surrounds many diseases, and I think the key thing we need to look out for is, as WHO, to work with our partners in communities and elsewhere to make sure that the messaging is correct."

Netizens have also taken to Twitter to dispel this false messaging.

The CDC recommends cautionary measures like seeking medical attention for explained rashes. If someone is diagnosed with the pox, they must self-isolate and avoid close contact with higher-risk groups. These include children, pregnant people, and those with weakened immune systems.

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