WHO Director General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus make the comments Wednesday at a press conference where he said 98% of monkeypox cases have been reported in men who have sex with men.
Tedros said “this is an epidemic that can be stopped”, as long as governments take appropriate action and individuals stay informed and protect themselves against the virus.
“For men who have sex with men, this includes, for now, reducing your number of sexual partners, reconsidering sex with new partners, and exchanging contact information with any new partners to allow follow-up if necessary,” Tedros said.
Since the monkeypox outbreak was first reported by the WHO in May, public health officials have sought to balance the need to educate the community experiencing the bulk of transmission – men with sex with men, including gay and bisexual men – and a desire not to stigmatize members of this community or create the impression that monkeypox exclusively affects men who have sex with men.
“Anyone exposed can get monkeypox,” Tedros said on Wednesday, as he urged countries to “reduce the risk of transmission to other vulnerable groups,” including children, pregnant women and people whose the immune system is weakened.
Yet, as it has become clear that monkeypox is spreading, for now, primarily among men who have sex with men, calls have grown for health agencies and governments to raise awareness more specifically about members of this community.
What to know about monkeypox symptoms, treatments and protection
Monkeypox is primarily spread through close physical contact between humans, although it can also be passed from a pregnant person to their fetus through the placenta, and when a person touches contaminated clothing and other items, the Centers say. for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Symptoms of monkeypox infection include fever, muscle aches, and a rash or blisters that look like smallpox.
More than 18,000 cases of monkeypox have been reported to the WHO in 78 countries, although the bulk of the cases are in Europe, the epicenter of the outbreak. Five of those cases resulted in death, the WHO said.
More than 4,600 monkeypox infections have been reported in the United States, where President Biden is debating whether to declare the outbreak a public health emergency.
For its part, the WHO declared monkeypox a “public health emergency of international concern” – its highest threat level – over the weekend, after an emergency committee convened by the he global health body declined once last month to recommend that the WHO take this step.
Tedros, the head of the WHO, said on Saturday he made the final call after committee members remained divided on whether the high alert declaration was warranted. One of the reasons for the hesitation was the lack of evidence that monkeypox is spreading among the wider population.
Although monkeypox spread primarily among men who have sex with men during this outbreak, it has been endemic for decades outside of this community in West and Central African countries. As The Washington Post reported, experts believe the latest outbreak may have first spread through gay social media and places frequented by men who have sex with men, including saunas and hot tubs. European festivals.
WHO declares monkeypox a global health emergency as infections soar
The monkeypox outbreak has highlighted disparities in healthcare access for gay and bisexual men in the United States, where there are not enough vaccines and providers able to administer antiviral treatments. to help anyone looking to protect themselves against infection.
As the country’s health system struggles to respond, many experts have in mind the public health response to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, when gay men were scapegoated and dying of disease in large numbers when effective treatments were not yet available.
“Experience shows that stigmatizing rhetoric can quickly disable an evidence-based response by fueling cycles of fear, driving people away from health services, hampering case identification efforts and encouraging ineffective punitive measures. Matthew Kavanagh, deputy executive director of the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS, said in May as he urged caution in messaging about monkeypox.
Fight to protect gay and bisexual men from monkeypox exposes inequality
In its guidance for monkeypox public health messaging aimed at gay and bisexual men, the CDC stated, “It is important to reach any disproportionately affected community with non-alarmist, evidence-based messages about monkeypox. monkey that provide people with tools they can use to protect themselves. and others.”
Tedros – whose recommendations on Wednesday appear to be more specific than earlier WHO guidance – said any effective response to the outbreak must enable “communities of men who have sex with men to reduce the risk of ‘infection and further transmission’. But the response must be shaped, he said, in a way that “protects human rights and dignity”.
“Stigma and discrimination can be as dangerous as any virus and can fuel the epidemic,” he added.
Fenit Nirappil contributed to this report.