The local transmission of Jamaica’s third case of the monkeypox virus has increased the fear among members of the LGBTQ+ community, in particular men who have sex with men, that there could be a severe backlash on the local gay community if action is not taken to sensitise the Jamaican populace of the disease.
They want the message to be stronger that monkeypox is not a gay disease, in spite of the World Health Organization (WHO) stating that 98 per cent of the global cases were men who engage in sexual activity with the same gender.
Since early May, more than 23,000 cases of monkeypox have now been reported in 78 countries, including the United Kingdom, Spain, Germany, France, the United States, Brazil and Jamaica, which confirmed its third case on Friday, the first locally transmitted patient.
Declaring the recent outbreak an international public health emergency, WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urged at a recent press briefing that men who have sex with men reduce the number of sexual partners, reconsider sex with new partners and exchange contact details with any new partners to enable follow-up, if needed.
But Kandasi Levermore, executive director of the Jamaica AIDS Support for Life (JASL), the organisation that led the fight against stigmatisation of the sexually transmitted disease in the 1980s, is warning against the naming of specific groups as it relates to monkeypox, which could lead to stigmatisation and discrimination, causing individuals to avoid the formal healthcare system for treatment out of fear. This, she said, could backfire and result in a spread of the disease.
“When AIDS emerged, people were so afraid because it was called the gay disease and the stigma was very strong in Jamaica. It is very disappointing that as public health practitioners, we continue to box things down to one’s sexual orientation even when we know it should not be so,” she told The Sunday Gleaner.
“With HIV we learned, maybe too late in the game, that more people were at risk than what was being suggested by the stigmatising messages of the day, so persons who would have been at risk dropped their guard and contracted the virus. And it is a similar attitude I am seeing with monkeypox,” added Levermore, whose non-government organisation was established in 1991.
“Whether you are gay, straight, living in the city or in the country, you can get monkeypox once you have that physical contact with someone that is infected.
“Unfortunately, we are seeing the discrimination all over again, and this could drive many away from seeking help through the formal health system, give leg to misinformation and lead to a spread, which we do not want.”
Since the global outbreak, Jamaica’s Ministry of Health and Wellness has sought to educate persons about monkeypox, described as a rare disease. Similar to smallpox, it can be transmitted by contact or droplet exposure. Symptoms of monkeypox include a rash that may be located on or near the genitals or anus, as well as the hands, feet, chest, face, or mouth. Persons can also exhibit flu-like symptoms.
The health ministry has also advised that the current outbreak is spreading primarily through sexual contact.
STOP KIDDING OURSELVES
Glenroy Murray, interim executive director of Equality for All Foundation Jamaica – formerly Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG) – is also warning against stigmatisation and discrimination.
“Based on what I have been reading, I think we need to ensure that we do not make the same mistake we made collectively in the 1980s with the AIDS epidemic,” Murray told The Sunday Gleaner.
“I think it is important that the actions that we are taking as a preventative step is copied by the wider authorities.”
Murray argues that stigmatisation and discrimination will only serve to defeat the purpose and have an opposite effect.
“When AIDS first came to light, the other groups had a false sense of security and because they are not gay they did not need to worry, but 40 years later we are still dealing with HIV,” he noted.
“Now when I look at monkeypox, I think of that traumatic period in the 1980s, and from very early I was concerned about the language and how we were framing it around who can get it and the mode of transmission.”
Murray reasoned that the gay pride parades and other events across the world recently could have served as a breeding ground for the spread of the virus, but argued that multiple events across Jamaica during the Emancipation and Independence celebrations could also cause a public health crisis.
“I am a bit concerned that we are resting on our laurels and waiting on an outbreak to happen,” he said. “We need to let people know what to be watchful of because, especially with the reopening of school one month away, there has to be a clear understanding that this can affect anyone. We should not kid ourselves to believe that men who are having sex with men are only having sex with men.”
Dr Delroy Fray, clinical coordinator of the Western Regional Health Authority (WRHA), strongly believes Jamaica is equipped to deal with an outbreak of monkeypox, if it comes to that. He also thinks Jamaicans have matured, noting that everyone has access to proper healthcare.
“If we get an outbreak in this country, it will be a public health problem, not so much a hospital problem, but I am cautiously optimistic that from a hospital perspective we are at a good place,” he said. “As a nation, I think we have matured and will deal with this in a different way, but as healthcare professionals, we do not stigmatise, all our patients are important.”
Fray revealed that the Ministry of Health has been sensitising healthcare workers in all the regions, preparing for any eventualities.