Over the weekend, the WHO declared monkeypox a health emergency of international concern. The disease has been circulating in remote parts of Africa (where animals and rodents carry the virus) for quite some time but has now made its way to the other side of the world. Now, Europe is the epicenter of the monkeypox outbreak, recording over 70% of cases, followed by the Americas at 25%. According to the WHO, over 18,000 cases have been reported across nearly 80 countries. Five deaths in Africa have also been reported.
So far, it’s mainly spreading through prolonged skin-to-skin contact during sex, but it’s unclear whether it’s a new sort of STI. To elaborate, it’s not an STI in the typical sense of spreading through semen or vaginal fluids. But, the virus does seem to behave similarly in that it’s being spread through close physical contact, which includes sexual contact. While most people catching it in this ongoing outbreak are men between the ages of 30 and 40, anyone can catch it through physical contact like hugging and kissing. So, although it doesn’t seem to be spreading in the broader community so far, that could change if the outbreak isn’t contained.
With that, on Wednesday, the WHO recommended that gay and bisexual men limit their number of sexual partners, as 99% of cases so far are among men, and at least 95% of those are men who have sex with men. This comes as both Australia and the US make monkeypox a disease of national significance within their borders, and monkeypox vaccination clinics pop up around Europe.
“An outbreak of a disease called monkeypox is currently taking place in many countries that do not typically have cases. This can be concerning, especially for people whose loved ones or community have been affected. Some cases have been identified through sexual health clinics in communities of gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men. It is important to note that the risk of monkeypox is not limited to men who have sex with men. Anyone who has close contact with someone who is infectious is at risk. However, given that the virus is being identified in these communities, learning about monkeypox will help ensure that as few people as possible are affected and that the outbreak can be stopped,” wrote the WHO. “This public health advice contains information on how monkeypox spreads, what to do if you think you have symptoms and how to protect yourself and others. It can be used by community leaders, influencers, health workers and people attending social events and parties to inform and engage communities of men who have sex with men.”
“Today, the Biden-Harris Administration announced the first phase of its national monkeypox vaccine strategy, a critical part of its monkeypox outbreak response. The vaccine strategy will help immediately address the spread of the virus by providing vaccines across the country to individuals at high risk. This phase of the strategy aims to rapidly deploy vaccines in the most affected communities and mitigate the spread of the disease,” said The White House Fact Sheet on the disease.
“The vast, vast majority of cases are in gay and bisexual men, and pretending that that’s not the case doesn’t help any of us,” said Will Nutland, co-founder of gay and bisexual men’s health organizations PrEPster and Love Tank.
“It’s very important for anyone who has monkeypox to isolate, so that they can protect anyone else living in their household or anyone else they may be in contact with,” said the WHO’s monkeypox expert, Rosamund Lewis. “Household transmission is how this was first discovered, and household transmission may in some circumstances begin to occur.”