Whistling Past Monkeypox

If you’re at risk (or you think you’ve been exposed) to monkeypox, there are five locations statewide for vaccine and testing options, including one (finally!) south of I-195. You might have to call all 5 to get an appointment. 

I’ve been HIV+ long enough to recognize some parallels between HIV/AIDS and monkeypox, especially the all-too-familiar stigmatized infectious disease “only” affect gay and bisexual men. It’s a fallacy that puts straight people in danger. They won’t protect themselves convinced that monkeypox (aka MPX) only happens to gays.

And because of that stigma if, for example, a straight guy comes down with a mild case of MPX he may be disinclined to get tested or seek treatment to avoid the perception that he’s gay. This is probably already happening, further distorting the idea of who’s at risk.

The federal and state government’s response to MPX has been lackluster thus far. I was proud to vote for President Biden and Gov. Murphy (twice!) making their halting leadership on this issue painful to behold. I’ve spent the past month refreshing the CDC website for updates for myself (and others) and until the past week, MPX simply wasn’t a priority if we’re judging by what’s on their website and what’s going out on their socials.

Ditto the NJ Department of Health website, until very recently.

So far there are 6000 confirmed MPX cases nationwide including  160 verifed cases here in New Jersey. If that figure strikes you as a modest one, you’re not wrong, it’s still a relatively small total and that’s entirely the point, isn’t it? And if an ounce of prevention was ever worth a pound of cure, America’s COVID-beleaguered healthcare system deserves a smarter, more nimble approach to MPX than what we’ve gotten so far.

We had a window to contain MPX in New Jersey. That window is now closed, a bewildering missed opportunity.

Dr. Perry Halkitis is Dean at the Rutgers University School of Public Health.

“The reality we face in New Jersey and in other states with regard to MPX can be understood in terms of the lackluster and rather slow response of the CDC and the federal government to the outbreak,” Dr. Halkitis told InsiderNJ. “Burdening states like ours, which is still trying to manage COVID-19 and HIV, to develop strategies on their own with very few resources and a limited availability of vaccines, didn’t work with COVID and is not working with MPX. We need a much stronger public health federal presence and a new approach to public health that shifts the dialogue from one that is purely medical to one that recognizes how social, psychological, and structural factors fuel disease.”

Unlike the AIDS virus, MPX isn’t fatal, a tender mercy after coronavirus’ meteoric bodycount. What is worrisome however is the stigma that’s already indelibly linked in the minds of many that MPX is a gay disease spread by depraved and promiscuous gays who might even have it coming. That’s how those who hate us depict this outbreak. Conservatives keen to dehumanize gay people have flooded the zone with all manner of anti-gay banter while democrats have struggles to formulate coherent messaging to curb the disease or the stigma it carries.

I got a much- coveted monkeypox vaccine this week and I can’t help but wonder: did I win the vaccine lotto out of sheer luck? Or was it more to do with my loud mouth? Probably a little of both to be honest. But when a board member of Garden State Equality helped secure my jab, I seized the opportunity even though I still think monkeypox caught GSE woefully flat-footed. And to the extent Governor Murphy takes his cues on LGBTQ issues from Garden State Equality, greater urgency from GSE might’ve stalled MPX’s momentum.

“If AIDS taught us anything it is that we must act swiftly and we must message clearly appealing to individual emotion and not simply believe logic and reason will suffice,” Dr. Halkitis added. ”This is urgent since MPX is simply the pathogen du jour; in this new era of pandemics, globalization, deforestation, climate change, discrimination, selfishness, and economic uncertainty and other such factors continue to allow diseases to emerge and spread.”

Jay Lassiter is an award-winning writer and podcaster based in Cherry Hill, NJ. 

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2 responses to “Whistling Past Monkeypox”

  1. LOVE THE PICTURE!!!!!

    Jay Lassiter, your column was excellent, truthful, and meaningful. Bless you.

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