Jul 28, 2022 - News

Washingtonians talk monkeypox, vaccines, and stigma

Illustration of a syringe surrounded by various shapes and lines

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Some gay and bisexual men in D.C. who are facing the brunt of the monkeypox outbreak tell Axios they’re pleased so far with the city’s vaccine rollout, but have concerns about supply shortages and equity.

  • Some say they’ve changed social behaviors and worry about increased stigma against gay men as the outbreak continues.

Why it matters: Officials have wrestled with how to frame public messaging amid concern that it could contribute to further stigma and falsely imply that monkeypox is limited to being spread among gay men.

  • A majority of D.C.’s monkeypox cases as of mid-July were among white gay men in their 30s.

The big picture: With U.S. monkeypox cases close to 5,000, including just over 200 in D.C., DC Health is still hopeful that monkeypox can be contained, but vaccine shortages have caused frustrations.

  • Earlier this week, the District postponed most second dose appointments to prioritize getting as many people as possible their first dose.

What they’re saying: Robb Dooling, 31, is feeling the pangs of early COVID-19 all over again as he retreats from some sexual behaviors to avoid transmission.

  • “I had a partner complain to me at one point,” he told Axios. “Are you going to socialize at all? When are you going to feel safe socializing again?”

Another 24-year-old who asked to speak anonymously has spent every night scouring his body for signs of a rash, fearful of what an infection might mean for his partner who is HIV positive.

The worst part, though, he says is seeing homophobic social media posts about monkeypox. He worries that the broader public is seeing monkeypox as a disease spread only through gay sex.

  • “I'm just very nervous that when this inevitably spikes in the fall, gay men are going to be blamed, ostracized, and targeted because of the broader climate we're in that wants to paint us all as pedophiles and groomers,” he told Axios.

sangam 'alopeke, 37, says D.C. has done a good job of threading the needle on messaging, emphasizing that men who have sex with men are at highest risk, but striking down false information that the disease is spread by gay sex.

  • However, 'alopeke pointed out the lack of vaccine clinics east of the Anacostia River.

Between the lines: Limited resources have given way to inequities in testing, treatment, and vaccination.

In D.C., as of mid-July, 76% of vaccines went to white residents while 66% of cases were among white residents, the Washington Post reported.

  • DC Health announced Wednesday that a Ward 8 vaccine clinic would be opening on Aug. 1, and previously said they’re looking to partner with more organizations to provide clinics for LGBTQ+ communities of color.

Others who spoke with Axios say their experience getting vaccinated was smooth after a pre-registration system was put in place to randomly offer appointments to eligible people. As of Wednesday, 18,000 people have registered for vaccines.

  • The earlier first-come-first-serve system meant those who had the time and technology to “rapid-refresh” their devices were able to get early appointments — like Murray Penner, 60, who happened to be on Twitter when DC Health announced the first round of vaccines.

Yes, but: Penner, who is immunocompromised, is still eligible for a second dose appointment but received an automated message from D.C. postponing it anyway. He now plans on getting his second dose in Canada while traveling for a conference.

  • Still, as an HIV activist, Penner says he normally would be critical of the city’s public health responses but is pleased so far — especially its messaging which he says doesn’t shy away from educating and protecting gay men.

What’s next: President Biden is expected to soon declare monkeypox a public health emergency which may streamline resource allocation.


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