Sep 6, 2022 - News

Monkeypox outbreak in Colorado poses communication challenge

Confirmed monkeypox cases per 100k residents
Data: CDC, U.S. Census; Chart: Erin Davis/Axios Visuals

The first monkeypox death in the U.S. is amplifying questions about how to communicate the risks related to the disease and who is most vulnerable.

Why it matters: How health information is relayed to the public holds great consequences, as evidenced by the mistakes made related to talking about COVID-19 and HIV.

State of play: Monkeypox infections are seen primarily among men who have sex with men, but emphasizing that transmission route could lead to stigmatizing gay and bisexual men, Axios' Arielle Dreher writes.

The initial information shared by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment drew backlash from the state employee union for being misleading because it suggested it only spread between gay men, the Colorado Sun reports.

  • In the latest public briefing, officials didn't use the name monkeypox, instead calling it MPV (short for the monkeypox virus).
  • The new messaging also notes that the virus can spread to anyone. About 7% of the cases are among heterosexual people.

By the numbers: Case counts are plateauing nationally, but in Colorado the numbers continue to climb.

  • 158 cases reported in August and three so far in September to bring the total to date to 235. Nine are hospitalized, according to state data.

Between the lines: The language evolution came as part of the state's consultations with One Colorado, a leading LGBTQ organization, and others about how not to stigmatize a community.

What they're saying: "It's been important for public health to make sure that we're getting the critical information we need to get to the information who need it most," Colorado epidemiologist Rachel Herlihy told the Sun. "But we also don't want to add to the stigmatization of potentially marginalized communities."

The big picture: Health agencies and providers are figuring out a communications strategy while having to make do with dwindling resources and dealing with growing equity issues.

  • Much like COVID-19, vaccine equity is a problem with white people receiving 50% of the first doses despite people of color contracting the disease at higher numbers.
  • "There's a concern that people getting vaccines may not be the ones most at-risk," Anna Person, a physician at the Vanderbilt Comprehensive Care Clinic, which serves HIV patients, told Axios.

The bottom line: Whether or not cases keep falling largely depends on the ability of providers to get vaccines out to those who need them most, and raising awareness in communities at risk.

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