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A traveler entering Indonesia undergoes monkeypox screening at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Tangerang near Jakarta on May 15, 2019. (Photo: Anton Raharjo/Anadolu Agency/via Getty Images)

UN Agency Condemns 'Homophobic and Racist' Monkeypox Reporting

"Stigma hurts everyone," says one ranking UNAIDS official. "Shared science and social solidarity help everyone."

Brett Wilkins

As the World Health Organization said it expects more cases of monkeypox to be identified around the world, the United Nations HIV/AIDS agency on Sunday denounced what it and numerous public health experts called bigoted Western media coverage of a disease that "can affect anyone."

"Lessons from the AIDS response show that stigma and blame directed at certain groups of people can rapidly undermine outbreak response."

UNAIDS lamented in a statement that "some public reporting and commentary on Monkeypox has used language and imagery, particularly portrayals of LGBTI and African people, that reinforce homophobic and racist stereotypes and exacerbate stigma."

"Lessons from the AIDS response show that stigma and blame directed at certain groups of people can rapidly undermine outbreak response," the agency added.

UNAIDS deputy executive director Matthew Kavanagh warned that "stigma and blame undermine trust and capacity to respond effectively during outbreaks like this one."

"Experience shows that stigmatizing rhetoric 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," he noted.

Although the World Health Organization (WHO)—which on Friday held an emergency meeting on the monkeypox outbreak—said Saturday that "based on currently available information, cases have mainly but not exclusively been identified amongst men who have sex with men seeking care in primary care and sexual health clinics," public health experts stressed that monkeypox is not a "gay disease."

"Despite uncertain variables in transmission with the April-May 2022 cases, immediately attributing a clustering of cases among [men who have sex with other men] to sexual networks is not only premature but also feeds into negative stereotypes of sexual promiscuity being to blame for an expanding outbreak," Dr. Boghuma Kabisen Titanji, an infectious diseases specialist at Emory University in Atlanta, wrote in PLOS Global Public Health on Thursday.

According to the United Nations News Agency:

Monkeypox is a viral zoonosis (a virus transmitted to humans from animals) with symptoms very similar to those seen in the past in smallpox patients, although it is clinically less severe. There are two clades of monkeypox virus: the West African clade and the Congo Basin (Central African) clade.

The name monkeypox originates from the initial discovery of the virus in monkeys in a Danish laboratory in 1958. The first human case was identified in a child in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1970.

Monkeypox virus is transmitted from one person to another by close contact with lesions, body fluids, respiratory droplets, and contaminated materials such as bedding. The incubation period of monkeypox is usually from six to 13 days but can range from five to 21 days.

People infected with monkeypox usually recover within two to four weeks without requiring hospitalization; infection, however, can sometimes prove fatal, especially in immunocompromised people, those who are pregnant, and children. The WHO says that "no deaths have been reported to date" during the current outbreak.

Titanji said that the emerging narrative surrounding monkeypox is "sadly reminiscent of initial reporting" on HIV/AIDS, when some major media referred to the mysterious and terrifying new affliction as a "gay plague" and right-wing leaders in countries including the United States and the United Kingdom ignored and even mocked a burgeoning pandemic that to date has claimed more than 36 million lives.

"It wasn't until it became obvious that HIV infections were not confined to the gay community that more resources and a political will to seriously tackle the crisis were set in motion," Titanji added. "Four decades later, the dynamic of the HIV epidemic has been completely transformed by highly effective treatment and prevention strategies."

Reiterating that "this disease can affect anyone," Kavanagh said that "this outbreak highlights the urgent need for leaders to strengthen pandemic prevention, including building stronger community-led capacity and human rights infrastructure to support effective and non-stigmatizing responses to outbreaks."

"Stigma hurts everyone," he added. "Shared science and social solidarity help everyone."

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