As gay and bisexual men, we share a responsibility to end monkeypox

by Ash Kotak | AIDS Memory UK
Tuesday, 2 August 2022 11:54 GMT

People queue up to receive monkeypox vaccinations during a pop-up clinic at Guy's Hospital in central London, Britain, July 30, 2022. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

I have decided to make the personal choice of refraining from having casual sex until monkeypox is under control

Ash Kotak leads #AIDSMemoryUK - the campaign to establish a national tribute to memories of HIV and AIDS in Britain

The international response to monkeypox is failing, allowing the virus to spread to at least 80 countries and infections to rise rapidly around the world.

Gay and bisexual men, the monkeypox virus and a slow response by government were bound to raise comparisons and revive memories of the homophobic reaction to "GRID" - gay-related immune deficiency - in the early 1980s, which would become more widely known as AIDS.

In Europe and the Americas, monkeypox – which does not discriminate according to sexuality and is not a sexually transmitted disease - is so far, being spread mainly by men who have sex with men (MSM) through "skin-to-skin contact during sexual encounters" according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Last week, the WHO's director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, announced a global emergency. Risking unwarranted accusations of homophobia, he offered specific advice to MSM on how to protect ourselves:

"For the moment, reducing your number of sexual partners, reconsidering sex with new partners, and exchanging contact details with any new partners to enable follow-up if needed."

Will enough MSM hear him at this critical time?

Monkeypox has already galvanised men who have sex with men in Western Europe and North America to push for a more comprehensive vaccination programme. It needs more funding, urgently. Gay and bi men expect priority care in a crisis, as a right, as equal citizens in society.

Due to living in central London, I have received the first dose of the vaccine.

It takes 28 days to reach peak protection of between 67% (for those who are HIV+) and 83% (HIV-). Maximum protection of 96% and 98%, respectively, takes 42 days with two jabs.

Meanwhile, as ever, Africa waits.

The monkeypox spreading mainly in Nigeria and in the Democratic Republic of Congo is a more lethal form, resulting in at least 75 suspected deaths over four decades of outbursts. Ghana announced its first death this week.

Last week, two deaths were reported in Spain (with few facts released). Two other men, a 22-year-old in India and a 41-year-old Brazilian with the co-morbidities of lymphoma and an already weakened immune system, have also died.

However, for the majority of people, infections are generally mild, and the death rate is very low. Yet 8% in London have required hospitalisation to manage excruciating pain, infected open blisters and even encephalitis.

I have decided to make the personal choice, of refraining from having casual sex until monkeypox is under control.

As an activist, I feel I am doing my part to stop the virus becoming endemic in the gay community. It is a responsible, affirmative and socially focused action to take. It will also make me feel less anxious and better about myself.

I do not wish to "slut-shame" others for their own actions. My choices are premised on agency, good mental health, good support networks, a safe home and a lot more. I have worked hard to get to the space I am in now.

The WHO states and I agree:

"The responsibility for stopping this outbreak is necessarily a joint responsibility, shared among health institutions and authorities, governments, and affected communities and individuals themselves."

It is much more for me too. I want to prove to myself that I have learnt from the history of HIV/AIDS, that the fierce battles we won and lost during the peak of AIDS-related deaths mattered.

I lost too many friends whilst I survived. Our collective traumas must mean something. The raw memories of the savage prejudice thrown at us have not been forgotten.

Each to their own, though. To end monkeypox, it is essential we work from the truth, without any shame or shaming, accepting the diversity with which we practice our sexual lives.

Yet we must be aware we have an obligation to ourselves, to our community and to the society in which we live.

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