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Geoff Ritter: The perils of monkeypox messaging

 
By Geoff Ritter
Editor, SILMG
updated: 8/10/2022 9:46 PM

"While direct illness will subside, certain symptoms may remain. Consult your doctor or physician if some actually get way, way worse, which is likely."

Those words aren't ripped from the tail end of the latest prescription drug spot. They are a fair smirk at us, here, right now, you and I, as we muddle through another public health threat, clearly having tuned out some of the quick mumbo-jumbo that came at the tail end of the last one.

A quick update on COVID-19: After a devastating rampage that claimed more than 1 million American lives, almost 40,000 of them Illinoisans, the virus has been largely contained. Much of this has been thanks to vaccines and public mitigation measures.

While the public health risk of COVID remains, especially to those in certain risk groups, its spread and impact have been mitigated. Since the last surge in January and February, new reported cases have dropped precipitously, according to comprehensive data compiled by the New York Times. Earlier this year, Saline County counted new cases numbering in the hundreds. Right now, they come in dozens, if that many.

But while the virus itself has been curbed, the public information nightmare that became another of its symptoms is, in fact, alive and thriving. Look no further than monkeypox, which Gov. J.B. Pritzker made the subject of an emergency declaration last week. That action, his office said, would help to mobilize vaccines and testing toward the most impacted people. Pritzker noted the disproportionate impact on the LGBTQ+ community, promising "the resources they need to stay safe while ensuring members are not stigmatized as they access critical health care."

The problem is, monkeypox is the perfect confluence of a public health threat, a citizenry still fatigued and suspicious from the last one, and ongoing and perversely normalized anti-gay sentiment. Others have observed the disconnect in messaging. "One of the most disturbing aspects of this has been watching officialdom flail around on the issue of the relationship between monkeypox and men having sex with men," writes journalist Matthew Yglesias on Slow Boring.

"The actual facts here do not appear to be particularly complicated or in dispute: There is nothing 'gay' about the virus; experiencing same-sex attraction does not make you uniquely vulnerable to infection, nor does having sex with women offer any guarantee of protection ... [But] The vast majority of the currently infected people are men who have sex with men."

The Illinois Department of Public Health notes this in its recent updates on the virus in this state, where total reported cases of monkeypox hover around 500. Compare that, however, with a press release last week from U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, which spends enough time discussing the specific numbers and regions for planned vaccine rollout to rival the tracking on your most recent Amazon Prime order. At the very end of the very last sentence is an add-on about "conducting robust outreach to stakeholders and members of the LGBTQI+ communities."

Monkeypox is a virus that spreads through close, usually sexual contact, and researchers are still studying whether it can be spread asymptomatically. The vast majority of cases has been in gay men, although the virus is not exclusive to that group. Some have suggested it is only beginning its rise among that community.

Yet, the public health response has struggled around this sensitive detail, minimizing its importance in what must be a well-intentioned bid to avoid leaving the gay community feeling "stigmatized," as Pritzker said. But this repeats the same style of unclear messaging that turned face masks into a generational struggle. There, the official advice shifted depending on the time of day or who you could still tolerate listening to.

Now, that same overload has the chance to partner with vicious anti-gay ideology, which remains shockingly pervasive in 2022. Admittedly, the people writing the public health notices have tough work ahead of them. On one hand, they risk creating needless public hysteria by minimizing the risky activities that lead to infection, in effect obfuscating what we know of the disease and overstating the risks to the generally healthy population. On the other, they risk further enflaming bigotry against the LGBTQ+ community, which deserves clear guidance right now.

After battling through the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s, one might expect a better response now. Clearly, we haven't learned all our lessons from that trauma -- or from the information war that shaped our last public health crisis. We fix the disease, but we never cure all the symptoms. That said, leave your doctor alone, but send me an email if you are experiencing these same signs of frustration, confusion or exhaustion with the current state of public health messaging. And please, take some time to join me again here next week. Hopefully, it's habit-forming.