Falling monkeypox cases, but increasing racial disparities

WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House said Wednesday it was optimistic about a drop in monkeypox cases and an uptick in vaccinations against the infectious virus, despite worsening racial disparities in reported cases.

Promising to increase vaccine offers at LGBTQ Pride festivals across the country in the coming weeks, Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, the White House’s deputy national monkeypox response coordinator, said more than 460,000 doses had been administered.

The end of the spread of the virus is not in sight, however.

“Our goal is to control this outbreak in the United States,” Daskalakis said. “We’re seeing big progress, really, getting shots in the arms. Now that supply is less of an issue, we need to make sure we are focused on maintaining demand.

The United States leads the world in infections – as of Wednesday, 21,274 cases had been reported – with men accounting for around 98% of cases and men who said they had recent sexual contact with other men around 93% of cases.

Monkeypox, which can cause a rash, fever, body aches and chills, is transmitted through close skin-to-skin contact and prolonged exposure to respiratory droplets. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that men or transgender people who have had multiple male sexual partners consider vaccination.

The number of infections is slowing after peaking at 870 cases in a single day on August 22. But the decline revealed deepening racial divides.

While cases among white men have plummeted in recent weeks, blacks account for a growing percentage of infections – nearly 38% in the last week of August, according to the latest available data. During the first weeks of the monkeypox outbreak, black people made up less than a quarter of reported cases.

Latinos are also disproportionately infected, accounting for about a third of infections.

This trend means that public health messages and vaccines are not effectively reaching these communities, said Dr. Amesh Adalja, principal investigator at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

“It tells you that there needs to be a major recalibration in your interventions,” Adalja said. “It’s not as impactful as it should be.”

The Biden Administration has struggled from the start with its response to the outbreak when it was first identified in May. One million doses of vaccine were awaiting use in the national strategic stock, but the United States had only 2,000 on hand. Shipping and regulatory delays forced a months-long wait for most of the remaining supply, as men lined up for hours outside clinics in major cities hoping to get vaccinated.

White House officials said Wednesday they had bounced back from some of those early missteps, pointing to a recent drop in cases.

Daskalakis said the Biden administration has worked to get vaccines directly into the hands of local LGBTQ-related organizations to increase uptake in Black and Latino communities. He pointed efforts during recent Pride celebrations in Atlanta and New Orleans as evidence.

“Thousands of individuals are enjoying protection against monkeypox that they might not otherwise have,” Daskalakis said. “These events demonstrate that our strategy is working.”

In Louisville, Kentucky, 33-year-old Spencer Jenkins isn’t so sure.

Jenkins spent weeks this summer trying to get vaccinated by signing up on long waiting lists in cities hours away, including Washington and Chicago. He was lucky when his doctor in Louisville was one of the few providers in the city to receive doses of the vaccine early last month.

“You would think they would want to get everyone vaccinated because it’s preventative,” he said. “All the work was done on gay people who were trying to get vaccinated.”

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