As monkeypox infections spread, some medical professionals worry that increased social stigma could make the problem worse.
On Wednesday, the World Health Organization encouraged men engaging in same-sex intercourse to limit their number of partners, in order to curb the monkeypox outbreak. Monkeypox is not spread solely through sexual intercourse; it can be spread through close physical contact in any capacity. Nonetheless, at least 95% of those infected have been men who have sex with other men.
The Director General of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, urged queer men to “reduc[e] your number of sexual partners, reconsider… sex with new partners, and exchang[e] contact details with any new partners to enable follow-up if needed.”
Given that the overwhelming majority of infections are among men who have sex with men, it is natural that awareness campaigns would target gay men in particular. However, some worry about the social stigma this may cause. Even more concerning is the idea that safety precautions and healthcare quality will not be sufficiently prioritized if monkeypox is seen as “the gay disease” 2.0. Identity-based rhetoric is certainly useful in raising awareness about healthcare disparities, but it can also have troublesome effects on public response to health crises. Most notably, as major news sources documented racial disparities surrounding COVID hospitalizations and deaths, empathy and fear of the virus ebbed among white Americans.
As the specter of the AIDS crisis still looms large over the gay community, the dangers of monkeypox have been disseminated in a far more timely fashion. Nevertheless, the future trajectory of the virus, and the public perception surrounding it, will rest largely on the narrative pushed by public health officials and major news outlets.