Grindr, the social networking app, has sent a pop-up message to millions of European and American users about the risk of monkeypox. An organizer of a sex party in New York asked invited guests to examine themselves for lesions before arriving. And organizers of the city’s main Pride celebrations posted a monkeypox announcement on their Instagram account on Sunday.
As hundreds of thousands of people gather in New York City and elsewhere to celebrate Pride this month, city and federal officials, health advocates and party organizers rush to share an increasingly urgent health warning about the risk of monkeypox.
“Be aware, but don’t panic,” Jason Cianciotto, vice president of communications and policy at the gay men’s health crisis, summarized the message the group is trying to convey.
The virus, long endemic in parts of Africa, is now being transmitted worldwide, and while it can infect anyone, it’s currently spreading primarily through networks of men who have sex with men, officials say.
More than 2,000 people in 35 countries outside Africa have been diagnosed with the virus since May 13, when the first case of the outbreak was reported in Europe. As of Wednesday, 16 cases have been identified in New York City, including 84 nationwide. The recent cases in New York are not related to travel, suggesting person-to-person transmission is occurring in New York City, the city’s health department said.
Although the raw numbers are still low, epidemiologists are concerned about the extent of global transmission and because cases are emerging without clear links to each other, suggesting a broader spread. The World Health Organization will meet next week to determine whether monkeypox is now considered a global health emergency.
Monkeypox, so named because it was first discovered by European researchers in 1958 in captive monkeys, can infect anyone, regardless of gender, age or sexual orientation. While it spreads primarily through direct contact with lesions, it can also be spread through shared objects, such as towels, as well as through droplets emitted when speaking, coughing, or sneezing.
Scientists believe it can also be transmitted through tiny aerosol particles, although that would likely require a long period of close contact. The virus is generally much less contagious than Covid-19.
Monkeypox has caused at least 72 deaths in African countries where the virus is endemic this year, WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, on Tuesday, but no other deaths were definitely linked to the global outbreak outside of Africa.
The first 10 cases in New York were all detected in men between the ages of 27 and 50, and most were identified as men who have sex with men using the global pattern, according to the city’s health department. Most cases in New York have resulted in mild symptoms, officials said, but even mild cases can present with an itchy and painful rash that lasts two to four weeks.
Public awareness of the outbreak, which would lead to more demand for testing, is still in its early stages, and the virus sometimes causes few lesions on the genital area, which can make it difficult to distinguish from other STDs. Two vaccines are available, as well as antivirals, although for now in America vaccines are being offered mainly to close contacts of identified or suspected cases.
Pride celebrations are the perfect time to raise awareness of the most vulnerable in the LGBTQ community, health officials said in interviews, but also present a challenge for those wanting to spread a community-protective message, without the alarm or create stigma. More broadly, organizers and health officials don’t want to put a damper on the Pride celebrations and their positive messages about sexual identity.
In collaboration with advocates and partners in the LGBTQ community, federal and local health officials have begun creating social media posts, writing factsheets, and releasing images of what smallpox looks like in recent weeks to let people know what to look for.
Pride gatherings also come at a crucial time when there is still a chance that aggressive public health measures could keep monkeypox under control, but increased contact during celebrations could lead to additional spread of the disease, particularly when the People are not educated about the virus.
“We need everyone to step up their game because if we’re going to contain it we need a real step up in effort across the board,said Gregg Gonsalves, a longtime AIDS activist and epidemiologist at the Yale School of Public Health, in an interview. “We are walking the fine line between containment and continued spread, and containment would be better.”
Health officials’ focus for now is on providing information on how the disease is transmitted – mainly through skin contact – and urging people to seek treatment if they have a rash or are unwell. While the messages are aimed specifically at the gay and bisexual community, public health officials also emphasize that anyone can become infected.
Although the current risk to the general public remains low, it could increase if the virus takes hold in the United States and other countries outside of Africa and infects larger numbers of people, the WHO warned in a recent update. The organization is also working to change the name of the virus, which it says could increase the stigma around it.
Still, many health experts warn that public health messaging, currently mostly online, needs to accelerate and that education alone will not be enough to contain the outbreak.
All aspects of the monkeypox response — from education to identifying cases to isolating those infected — should be stepped up, said Dr. Carlos Del Rio, Chair of the Department of Global Health at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health and the incoming President of the Infectious Disease Society of America.
“To curb this, we have to act quickly,” he said. “I wish we would do more.”
Testing for the virus is still rare in the United States. As of June 7, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had performed 297 tests for orthopoxvirus, the family of viruses that includes monkeypox.
Public health experts warn that the CDC’s centralized approach could discourage more widespread testing and spark echoes of the testing debacle that slowed the nation’s response to Covid-19 in February 2020.
Testing is currently in two phases: About 70 public health labs across the country are allowed to perform an initial orthopoxvirus PCR test, but the definitive diagnosis of monkeypox is made only by the Atlanta CDC lab. Commercial labs still cannot test for the virus. There is also no rapid or antigenic test for monkeypox, although one could be developed, as was the case for Covid, said Dr. Jay Varma, the director of the Cornell Center for Pandemic Prevention and Response.
“Without intending to take this lightly, we were once again caught with our pants down by a global pandemic for which we were unprepared,” said Mark Harrington, executive director of the Treatment Action Group and a longtime AIDS activist who promotes improvements in testing at a demanded Monkeypox Webinar hosted by the President of the Borough of Manhattan on Monday.
Some aspects of the federal response have received praise from the LGBTQ community. The CDC, for example, recently released a Sex-Positive Factsheet on Social Gatherings and Safer Sex that, rather than telling everyone to stay home, provides specific tips for avoiding monkeypox, such as: B. Keeping your clothes on during sex and not kissing.
“Some people are concerned that this will happen during Pride,” said Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, director of HIV/AIDS prevention at the CDC and chief of the agency’s monkeypox response team. “I can not Can’t think of a better time to break the news about something like this.”
This month’s parades and open-air events “are not where the virus is being spread,” said Mr. Cianciotto of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, so people shouldn’t be afraid to attend. “And clubs that host close-contact parties, or people who enjoy being with others in an intimate way, need to educate themselves on what to look out for and how to get help.”
As much as there has been increasing urgency to clear up, there has been little to expand on other aspects of the response, such as B. Greater access to testing and vaccinations for those who consider themselves high-risk, said Joseph Osmundson, a microbiologist at New York University who is part of a group of gay and queer activists who regularly speak to decision-makers about the response.
He and other activists have also worked through their own channels to educate the LGBTQ community about the virus — for example, by creating messages that sex party organizers can distribute to attendees, including photos of monkeypox lesions.
“When I speak to my friends in the queer community, we want to intervene,” said Dr. Osmundson. “We don’t want monkeypox. The places we meet for fun and camaraderie, we don’t want them closed, number one. And we like to go into these spaces with as little worry and risk as possible.”