Published on Oct. 13, 2022, at 10:00 a.m.
by Abby Walsh.
On May 18, 2022, a team of doctors from Massachusetts General Hospital announced the first case of monkeypox in the United States. Hearing about another novel illness caused panic to permeate throughout the general public. Who was this mysterious disease affecting, and was the world headed for another period of economic devastation and social isolation? The Biden Administration did not declare monkeypox a public health emergency until August, even though there were nearly 42,000 confirmed cases worldwide and over 350,000 doses of the vaccine had been administered in the U.S.
As the number of reported cases began to increase, it appeared that monkeypox was an illness that only impacted members of the LGBTQ community, particularly men who were having sex with male partners. This misinformed perspective elicited a negative portrayal of monkeypox in the media and harmful responses from public officials.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a conservative legislator from Georgia who has been criticized for spreading conspiracy theories and making out-of-pocket statements, when asked about her opinion of the monkeypox outbreak, said, “It’s not a threat to most of the population. People just have to laugh at it, mock it and reject it. … It’s another scam.”
The BBC, in its first article written about monkeypox, used a photograph of a Black man with blisters and sores as the featured image for the article.
Monkeypox first presents with symptoms similar to those of the flu. From there, the disease can progress into a severe rash with fluid-filled blisters that cover the body. Unlike COVID-19,monkeypox is not spread through respiratory droplets but is typically transmitted through close, skin-to-skin contact. The disease does not only affect gay men. In July, two young children in the U.S. were diagnosed with monkeypox. Although it is unclear on how these children received it, public health officials believe it may have been a result of “household transmission.”
The stigmatization of monkeypox being a disease that can only be transmitted and received by gay men mirrors previous coverage of novel diseases: the COVID-19 pandemic and the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Jeff Winton, CEO of Jeff Winton & Associates, said that there are many parallels between the monkeypox outbreak, COVID-19 and the AIDS crisis. A member and advocate of the LGBTQ community, he was working for a large pharmaceutical company involved with developing HIV and AIDS treatments during the heart of the epidemic.
“Things were evolving so quickly that no one knew what was happening,” Winton said. “Back in the early days they called it the ‘gay cancer.’”
“I see the same thing happening with monkeypox. … People are trying to compartmentalize it because if they do so, they don’t have to psychologically deal with it,” Winton said.
According to Winton, the largest differentiator between diseases like monkeypox and COVID-19 is that monkeypox, like AIDS, is “something that, in the initial stages, disproportionally impacted the gay population.” Because the disease has yet to affect mainstream society, it has received such minimal publicity. The little publicity it has generated has been predominately negative.
Dr. Karla Gower, a professor at The University of Alabama and board member of The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations, also believes that the labeling of monkeypox as a “gay” disease has lead to the negative and minimal press coverage.
“When it looked like it was only gay men getting it, we felt that we didn’t need to worry about it,” Gower said.
The HIV/AIDS crisis, which began in the 1980s, was a nerve-wracking time, especially for those a part of the LGBTQ community. Numerous people, particularly men who identify as gay or bisexual, fear that with the monkeypox outbreak, history is repeating itself. People are still dying from HIV/AIDS every day. In 2021, UNAIDS reported approximately 650,000 people died of “AIDS-related illnesses” globally that year.
“AIDs was so problematic and gay people were so stigmatized by it. People didn’t want to touch them. It was a scary time,” said Gower.
“It was a troubling time, and you knew when the phone rang during the middle of the night that another young friend had died,” said Winton.
The World Health Organization has had conversations of potentially renaming monkeypox variants so that they no longer refer to specific geographic regions. WHO said it is considering referring to monkeypox variants as their scientific phenotypes, Clade I and Clade II, and is actively taking submissions to replace the name monkeypox.
“Monkeypox sounds like something that is taking place in Africa; it sounds so foreign,” said Winton. Gower echoed this statement, saying that the name has undertones of racism against Black people. The renaming of monkeypox could reduce the negative stigma surrounding the disease and make it seem more universal among the general population.
Few corporations have released a statement in regards to monkeypox. While COVID may have impacted the way we speak about polarizing topics, such as illnesses and vaccines, it is important for corporations to acknowledge this public health issue and offer resources to employees who may need it.
“The [companies] who did it right [during COVID] were very empathetic and brought in doctors and public health officials to answer questions of employees,” Gower said. She believes that employees interested in learning about monkeypox could benefit by having an optional information session led by a public health official to answer questions and address concerns.
“Companies who do talk about it are recognizing they have a variety of people as their employees,” said Gower. “Essentially they are saying, ‘We see you, and we hear you.’”
The timing of the monkeypox outbreak could not be more unfavorable. As the world slowly makes a return to life pre-pandemic, the last thing anyone wants is another period of quarantine and isolation. If monkeypox stays on the fringe of society, there is no way for it to impact the economy, people’s daily routines and psyche.
Winton said that what people fear most is that “we are going into another 2020 where we have to wear masks, where we have to self isolate, and where we can’t go out in public.”
“People are on overload right now,” Winton said.
The limited information that we do have about monkeypox alludes to the same discomfort and uncertainty that everyone felt during the pandemic.
“We wanted definitive answers,” said Gower. “It fills the vacuum. We want that assurance that we are going to be OK, and that is where a lot of the misinformation and disinformation came from with COVID.”
Auburn University recently announced its first case of monkeypox on campus on Sept. 26. If monkeypox continues to spread on college campuses and in other public spheres, it is likely that there will be a greater sense of urgency and awareness with this disease.
Discussing monkeypox is an uncomfortable conversation, but it is necessary to inform and educate all populations about. By bringing this topic to the forefront, the world may avoid another tragic public health crisis in which millions of lives are lost.