Monkeypox is now an official public health emergency in the United States as of Thursday, with the Centers for Disease Control reporting more than 7,100 total identified cases in the nation, the Associated Press reports. Yet the disease seems to somehow be even more poorly understood by the general public than COVID-19 was in spring 2020, with poor communication from government sources and active misinformation spread through some media channels.
As myths and stigma surrounding monkeypox continue to proliferate, here are a few things to keep in mind so you can make the most informed decisions about your health.
Monkeypox isn’t a “new” disease.
Far from being a scary new sickness to worry about, monkeypox is a scary old sickness — which is a good thing. The virus causing monkeypox was first discovered in Danish research monkeys back in 1958, and was confirmed in human patients in 1970. That means there’s more than sixty years of established research to draw on when fighting this latest outbreak, which puts us in a much better position than where we found ourselves at the beginning of the last public health emergency. Plus, it’s closely related to smallpox, giving those who were vaccinated against it decades ago roughly 85% added protection now.
Monkeypox vaccines are still not easily available.
Even with all that research, already existing vaccines are still not getting in the arms of people who need them. At some urban hospitals, lines have formed before sunrise to access any new supplies of vaccine, and many leave disappointed, due in large part to the Biden administration’s “wait and see” attitude toward acquiring doses.
That shortage might soon be at an end, though. The FDA may allow medical providers to adjust the administration of the vaccine to a “dose sharing” method, which would draw five doses from a single vial of vaccine instead of just one, according to a statement from U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf on Thursday.
Monkeypox isn’t an STI or a “gay disease.”
The few vaccines available have largely been reserved for men who have sex with other men (both cisgender and transgender) based on initial reports that indicated a correlation between the virus’ spread and queer men’s social circles. But although the virus is still reported disproportionately among MSM in official case analyses, monkeypox does not spread through gay or even specifically sexual touch; it spreads via contact with lesions, body fluids, or respiratory droplets from any infected person (or animal), and it’s safe to say nobody was regularly wiping down the tables at the Belgian fetish festival earlier this year.
“Stigma and blame undermine trust and capacity to respond effectively during outbreaks like this one,” said UNAIDS deputy executive director Matthew Kavanagh in a statement back in May, decrying “homophobic and racist stereotypes” about who is at risk of the disease. That kind of rhetoric, Kavanagh explained, “can quickly disable evidence-based response by stoking cycles of fear, driving people away from health services, impeding efforts to identify cases, and encouraging ineffective, punitive measures.”
This isn’t the U.S. ‘s first monkeypox outbreak.
While most modern cases of monkeypox have been contained in West Africa, where viruses are easily spread across the region’s damp rainforests, it’s certainly no stranger to our shores. In 2003, 71 cases were reported, stemming from an outbreak in Wisconsin after Gambian pouched rats imported from Ghana infected the local animal population; from 2018 to 2021, at least eight people in the U.K. and U.S. were infected, mostly stemming from a larger outbreak in Nigeria.
You can’t identify monkeypox rashes just by looking at them.
It ought to go without saying, but do not harass strangers because you think they have monkeypox. Rashes and lesions can be caused by many different conditions, not all of them contagious, and taking your panic out on someone else can cause great harm. Last month, Lilly Simon, a New York City resident with neurofibromatosis — a genetic condition that causes skin tumors — went viral on TikTok when a user posted a video of her on the subway taken without consent. Before the video was taken down, Simon says it received a slew of comments including direct threats to her life.