The Monkeypox Double Standard: Public Health Messaging About It Is Vastly Different from COVID-19

During the COVID-19 pandemic, some political leaders like California’s Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) took drastic measures, even telling churches they weren’t essential and had to close down. Now that a monkeypox epidemic is underway, primarily in the gay population, there appears to be a double standard.

Public health officials are so worried about stigmatizing homosexual men that the agencies are in danger of harming that very population. Meanwhile, those who presently face little to no risk at all from monkeypox are faced with unnecessary anxiety about becoming infected.

In an article on its website entitled Reducing Stigma in Monkeypox Communication and Community Engagement, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued messaging guidance by stating, “Emphasize that anyone can get monkeypox and promote it as a public health concern for all.”

However, the risk to all people is not even remotely similar.  According to research published in The New England Journal of Medicine, the largest study to date, 98% of people infected with monkeypox were gay or bisexual men.  

U.S. federal health officials refuse to classify monkeypox as a sexually transmitted infection, even though the number one way monkeypox is being transmitted is through sex, according to Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady.

Likewise, Dr. Ina Park, a professor at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine said, “Right now, it’s behaving very much like an STI, and almost all of the cases have been among men who have sex with men.”  

Instead, the CDC advises media outlets and others, “Emphasize that monkeypox is spread through direct contact with an infectious rash, scabs, or body fluids, respiratory secretions during prolonged, face-to-face contact, or during intimate physical contact, such as kissing, cuddling, or sex, touching object, fabrics (such as clothing or linens) that previously touched the rash or body fluids of someone with monkeypox, being scratched or bitten by an infected animal.”

The CDC advises taking an “inventory” of possible super-spreader events and venues such as “massage parlors, spas, saunas, and sex clubs” but has stopped short of mandating the closure of those events and venues, in stark contrast to the mandated business and event closures in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, even though monkeypox is rarely fatal compared to COVID-19 which has claimed millions of lives.  

For example, in San Francisco, the epicenter of America’s monkeypox outbreak, city leaders refused to cancel the annual “Kink and Fetish” festival last week, an event that drew thousands of gay men to the city.  

The CDC also refuses to advise gay men to not sleep around to reduce transmission, even though the World Health Organization did just that.  Again, it comes in stark contrast to severe CDC mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic to limit behavior such as attending church and large Christmas gatherings.  

Health officials say the reason they’re prioritizing avoiding stigmatizing same-sex intimacy is that it’s insensitive to the homosexual and bisexual population and because men who feel stigmatized are less likely to seek medical care.  However, even those within the gay community say health officials who avoided closures and cancellations targeting the most at-risk community will only wind up hurting them.  

“It was devaluing gay men’s lives and health not to warn gay men,” said Dan Savage, a sex columnist quoted in The Washington Post, who has criticized the public health response to monkeypox. “Now, here we are, really on the verge of monkeypox being endemic in gay communities all over the world, and how is that for stigma?”

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