Charities and campaign groups have warned about the stigma faced by gay and bisexual people during the monkeypox outbreak.
To date, a total of 71 cases have been detected in the UK, with a significant proportion found in gay and bisexual men, according to the UK Health Security Agency.
UKHSA and charities have stressed the need to raise awareness of the spread of monkeypox among these groups, but also raised concerns about “lazy, homophobic tropes” that have later surfaced in connection with the viral infection.
Sasha Misra, Associate Director of Communications and Campaigns at Stonewall, said there was “increasingly sensationalized media coverage” of the monkeypox outbreak that “invites the reader to make the connection between the disease and the LGBTQ+ community.”
She added: “This is both irresponsible and dangerous. Reporting on this fad only serves to stigmatize the LGBTQ+ community and risks the wider population lowering their vigilance on the virus.
“The truth is that although a number of the confirmed cases in the UK have been found in gay and bisexual men, anyone can transmit the disease, regardless of sexual orientation. Monkeypox is not an STI – it is transmitted through close contact and we all need to be vigilant.”
None of the 71 UK cases have been identified in Wales and Northern Ireland. One infection has been detected in Scotland, while 70 have been reported across England. It is believed that most of them are centered in London.
Although there is no evidence that the infection spreads as an STI, the close contact that involves sexual intercourse is believed to be responsible for the sudden transmission of cases.
The fact that infections are being observed in so many different countries suggests that monkeypox, a viral disease, has been quietly spreading for some time, according to the World Health Organization.
dr David Heymann, who used to head the WHO’s emergency department, described the outbreak of cases as “a fortuitous event” that could be explained by two recent mass raves in Europe.
Health officials in Spain, which has so far had the highest number of monkeypox cases in the world, are also investigating possible links between a recent gay pride event in the Canary Islands, attended by about 80,000 people, and cases at a Madrid sauna.
The Elton John AIDS Foundation said people need to “be mindful of the language we use” when speaking about the outbreak and avoid stigmatizing certain communities.
Anne Aslett, CEO of the charity, said: “Stigma and blame have been a driver of HIV for four decades. As new viruses emerge, we must learn the lessons of our past and commit to fighting stigma. A good first step is to pay attention to the language we use.”
Aidsmap, a UK-based charity, said news of an infectious disease mostly affecting gay and bisexual men “has brought back memories of the early days of the HIV epidemic”.
Its Executive Director Matthew Hodson said: “As with HIV, there were lazy, homophobic tropes in the discussion that followed. As with HIV, monkeypox is just a virus with no capacity to make moral judgments about how it’s transmitted or to whom.”
Unlike HIV, however, he emphasized that monkeypox is usually mild and goes away without treatment. Most people infected with the virus usually recover within a week.
Symptoms include fever, headache, muscle aches, back pain, swollen lymph nodes, chills, and fatigue. A rash may develop, often starting on the face and then spreading to other parts of the body, including the genitals.
The first case identified in the UK was of a person who had returned from Nigeria, but other cases are unrelated to travel.
People who come into contact with infected people are offered a vaccine, which is usually used to protect against smallpox, which is caused by a similar virus.
Known as ring vaccination, this strategy involves healthcare workers, sexual partners, and roommates. High-risk contacts are also being asked to isolate at home for three weeks as the virus has a long incubation period and it can take several weeks for symptoms to appear.
The Terrence Higgins Trust, which has supported AIDS patients since its inception in the early 1980s, works with the UKHSA to leverage their community networks and raise awareness among gay and bisexual people of the spread of monkeypox.
Alex Sparrowhawk, from the Terrence Higgins Trust’s health improvement team, said: “We absolutely do not want to stigmatize gay and bisexual men and know the importance of being proactive about it.
“But we also know that to date, cases of monkeypox are disproportionately high among gay and bisexual men, and we want to use our expertise to play our part in reaching that community.”