WHO Director General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus make the comments Wednesday at a press conference where he said 98% of monkeypox cases have been reported in men who have sex with men.
Tedros said “this is an epidemic that can be stopped”, as long as governments take appropriate action and individuals stay informed and protect themselves from the virus.
“For men who have sex with men, this includes, for now, reducing your number of sexual partners, reconsidering sex with new partners, and exchanging contact information with any new partners to allow follow-up if necessary,” Tedros said.
Since monkeypox outbreak was first reported by the WHO in May, public health officials have sought to balance the need for community awareness knowing the bulk of transmission – men who have sex with men, including including gay and bisexual men – and the desire not to stigmatize members of this communityor give the impression that monkeypox exclusively affects men who have sex with men.
“Anyone exposed can get monkeypox,” Tedros said on Wednesday, as he urged countries to “reduce the risk of transmission to other vulnerable groups,” including children, pregnant women and people whose the immune system is weakened.
Yet, as it has become clear that monkeypox is spreading, for now, primarily among men who have sex with men, calls have grown for health agencies and governments to raise awareness more specifically about members of this community.
Monkeypox mainly spreads through close physical contact between humans, although it can also be passed from a pregnant person to their fetus through the placenta, and when a person touches contaminated clothing and other items, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ( CDC) of the United States. Symptoms of monkeypox infection include fever, muscle aches, and a rash or blisters that look like smallpox.
More than 18,000 cases of monkeypox have been reported to the WHO in 78 countries, although the bulk of the cases are in Europe, the epicenter of the outbreak. Five of those cases resulted in death, the WHO said.
For its part, the WHO has declared monkeypox a “public health emergency of international concern” – its highest level of threat – during the weekendafter an emergency committee convened by the global health body refused once in the last month recommend that WHO take this action.
Tedros, the head of the WHO, said on Saturday he made the final call after committee members remained divided on whether the high alert declaration was warranted. One reason for the hesitation was the lack of evidence that monkeypox is spreading among the wider population.
Although monkeypox spread primarily among men who have sex with men during this outbreak, it has been endemic for decades outside of this community in West and Central African countries. As The Washington Post reportedexperts believe the latest outbreak may have first spread via gay social media and in venues frequented by men who have sex with men, including saunas and European festivals.
The monkeypox outbreak has highlighted disparities in access to health care for gay and bisexual men in the United States, where there are not enough vaccines and providers capable of administering antiviral treatments to help all those seeking to protect themselves from infection.
As the country’s health system struggles to respond, many experts have the public health response to the 1980s AIDS epidemicwhen gay men were scapegoated and dying of the disease in large numbers when effective treatments were not yet available.
“Experience shows that stigmatizing rhetoric can quickly disable an evidence-based response by fueling cycles of fear, driving people away from health services, hampering case identification efforts and encouraging ineffective punitive measures. “, said Matthew Kavanagh, Deputy Executive Director of the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS, said in may as he urged caution in monkeypox messaging.
In its guidance for monkeypox public health messaging aimed at gay and bisexual men, the CDC stated, “It is important to reach any disproportionately affected community with non-alarmist, evidence-based messages about monkeypox. monkey that provide people with tools they can use to protect themselves. and others.”
Tedros – whose Wednesday recommendations seem to be more specific than previous WHO guidelines – said any effective response to the outbreak must enable “communities of men who have sex with men to reduce the risk of infection and onward transmission”. But the response must be shaped, he said, in a way that “protects human rights and dignity”.
“Stigma and discrimination can be as dangerous as any virus and can fuel the epidemic,” he added.
Fenit Nirappil contributed to this report.