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Global activists stormed the stage at AIDS 2022 to call for an equitable response to the monkeypox outbreak on August 1, 2022. (Photo: PrEP4All)

Activists Disrupt Global AIDS Conference to Demand Action on Monkeypox

"We're demanding immediate equitable global sharing of supplies of testing, treatments, and vaccines."

Jessica Corbett

Campaigners frustrated by the international response to the rapid spread of monkeypox—in the midst of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic—on Monday interrupted a global AIDS conference in Montreal.

"We're in a worsening outbreak that could have easily been prevented."

The protesters stormed the stage during a special session on monkeypox at AIDS 2022, the 24th International AIDS Conference, to draw attention to their demands for testing, vaccines, and treatment.

"Central and Western Africa has been fighting this virus since the 1970s, but no one ever talked about it because it wasn't [a virus affecting] white bodies," noted Naïké Ledan, associate director of international policy and advocacy at HealthGAP.

"We're demanding immediate equitable global sharing of supplies of testing, treatments, and vaccines," Ledan said, nodding to rich nations' and Big Pharma's deadly mishandling of Covid-19. "We're demanding rejection of any and all intellectual property, because it's a global crisis, not an opportunity to make money again."

The World Health Organization (WHO) last month classified monkeypox as a "public health emergency of international concern." As of Tuesday evening, there were over 25,000 confirmed cases across 83 countries—76 of which have not historically reported monkeypox, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The demonstrators in Montreal called on the WHO, other United Nations bodies, and rich nations including Canada, the United States, and European Union members to stop the spread of monkeypox, which often causes flu-like symptoms and lesions.

"We keep hearing in all these sessions [at the conference] that 'healthcare is a human right,'" pointed out PrEP4All managing director of policy and strategy James Krellenstein, "but we need to ask what our late colleague Paul Farmer asked, 'If healthcare is a human right who do you all consider human enough to have access to that right?'"

"We need to act now," Krellenstein stressed. "We're in a worsening outbreak that could have easily been prevented."

Emily Bass, senior policy adviser on Covid-19 at PrEP4All, highlighted a more positive takeaway from the conference.

"Coming together this week, we've all heard how the global network of community organizations, researchers, clinicians, and others in the ongoing response to HIV and AIDS have been heavily leaned on to use their experience and knowledge to address emerging issues like Covid-19 and now monkeypox," she said.

Bass emphasized that "we need to increase capacity rather than jeopardize the momentum we have... to address today's simultaneous pandemics and the ones to come."

The protest came as world leaders—including U.S. President Joe Biden—face mounting pressure to step up their responses not only internationally but also domestically.

The United States has more than 6,000 monkeypox cases, and leaders of the three states with the highest talliesNew York, California, and Illinois—have issued state of emergency declarations. Texas, Florida, Georgia, and the District of Columbia have also reported hundreds of cases.

Biden announced Tuesday that Robert Fenton, a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) regional coordinator, and Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, director of the CDC's Division of HIV Prevention, will serve as the White House's monkeypox response coordinator and deputy coordinator, respectively. Their responsibilities include "equitably increasing the availability of tests, vaccinations, and treatments."

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