Advocates warn of spread of LGBTQ2S+ stigma in monkeypox response

Advocates warn that stigma could pose a public health threat as a cluster of monkeypox cases stokes concern in the LGBTQ2S+ community.

Health authorities are investigating more than two dozen confirmed monkeypox cases in Canada as part of an unprecedented outbreak of the rare disease that seldom spreads outside Africa.

Twenty-five infections have been confirmed in Quebec, in addition to one in Ontario, the Public Health Agency of Canada said Thursday, predicting the tally will rise in coming days.

While everyone is susceptible to the virus, clusters of cases have been reported among men who have sex with men, officials say.

For some LGBTQ2S+ advocates, this raises the spectre of sexual stigmatization that saw gay and bisexual men scapegoated for the rise of the HIV-AIDS epidemic. Others say the early detection of the monkeypox cases by sexual health clinics shows how the queer community has mobilized to dismantle shame and promote safe practices.

Canada’s deputy chief public health officer said he’s mindful of the potential for stigma and discrimination, reiterating that the virus’s spread isn’t limited to any specific group or sexual orientation.

But as early signs suggest that the virus is circulating in certain communities, authorities are working to raise awareness among those at elevated risk of exposure, Dr. Howard Njoo told a news conference Thursday.

The disease can be contracted through close contact with a sick person, including but not limited to sexual activity, said Njoo. Scientists are still working to determine what’s driving cross-border transmission of the virus.

Aaron Purdie, executive director of the Health Initiative for Men in B.C., said he worries that the spread of fear and stigma could present a greater threat than the disease itself.

“Stigma spreads like a virus,” Purdie said. “Yes, it’s treatable. Yes, it’s containable. But it spreads nonetheless.”

Stigma can be a major hurdle to effective disease prevention and treatment, particularly for gay men who have suffered systemic discrimination by the health-care system, said Purdie.

Dane Griffiths, director of the Gay Men’s Sexual Health Alliance of Ontario, said silence tends to perpetuate stigma, so one of the best strategies to combat it is to provide timely and accurate information without “shame or blame.”

The identification of monkeypox cases in men who have sex with men speaks to the success of community-led efforts to improve access to sexual health testing and care, said Griffiths.

“There are gay and bisexual men who have been showing up around the world at clinics and doctor’s offices and are being seen and therefore counted,” said Griffiths. “That’s a good thing, and it’s actually to be encouraged within our community.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 28, 2022.

With files from Jacob Serebrin in Montreal 

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