Monkeypox & the media: Let’s not repeat the mistakes made with HIV/AIDS 

A person with monkeypox
Photo: Shutterstock

A recent opinion piece in the New York Times, “America May Soon Have Another Sexually Transmitted Infection,” was accompanied by a photo of vials labeled “Monkeypox Virus (MPXV).” The inaccuracy and harm from that headline – and article – was a gut punch to anyone who remembers the early, stigmatizing media about HIV/AIDS that set a tone that took decades to try and recover from. Early coverage in other outlets does not bode well for a repeat of the damage done as HIV emerged in the 1980s.

While MPXV can look like many sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and cause people with MPXV to seek care at STI clinics as the article says, the title and the article inaccurately suggest that MPV is an STI and paint a picture of MSM (men who have sex with men) as more sexually active than the average population. MPXV is not solely spread through sex and MSM sexual networks are not different than those of other groups. Current evidence suggests that MPV is spread through direct contact with lesions, exposure to respiratory secretions through prolonged face-to-face contact or intimate physical contact, and touching items that previously touched the infectious rash or body fluids. There are many non-sexual ways to transmit MPXV such as handshakes, hugs, or being in close proximity to infected persons.

By suggesting that MPXV is an STI predominantly spreading in MSM circles, the headline is contributing to the stigmatization of the LGBTQ community. This kind of reporting is dangerous, not only because it can lead to the further stigmatization of queer communities, but because it can encourage reductions in research funding, and suggest that non-MSM who may be at-risk can take fewer necessary precautions. At a time when attention spans are decreasing, inflammatory and misleading headlines promote the wrong message.

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It is not just queer communities suffering from this kind of inaccurate stigmatization, communities of color are also in the crosshairs. Many initial reports used pictures of Black people covered in lesions. This reporting ignores that the current MPXV outbreak does not include large numbers of lesions and the primary spread of the current outbreak is not in African countries or among the Black community. African journalists have condemned the use of these photos as it contributes to the stereotype of African people being carriers of disease, which has been used as an excuse to discriminate for years. African countries have also criticized the US for ignoring African MPXV research and the inequity in the global response to this outbreak when MPXV has been endemic in Africa for years.

The term “monkeypox” also contributes to stigma against African countries and a team of 30 international scientists has encouraged the use of MPXV instead. However, there has been no change in recent reporting. Time and time again, diseases have been associated with marginalized communities by the press and used as an excuse to discriminate. We have seen the long-term negative impacts this can have and we must do better.

Government health officials are trying to not repeat the mistakes of HIV/AIDS with their messaging. The CDC is emphasizing that anyone who comes into contact with the lesions of someone who is infected can become ill and using accurate pictures of MPXV symptoms on their website. The White House has stated that they are trying to avoid stigmatizing marginalized communities while still providing important information about MPXV. But there is still more work to be done to alleviate the current public confusion. This will require both health officials and local media to do a better job of communicating accurate information while avoiding stigmatization.

Despite all of the coverage, there still seems to be uncertainty from providers on what to look for to diagnose MPXV and what to do if they suspect a patient has it. There are several personal accounts of misdiagnosis, difficulty testing, difficulty finding prevention information, and poor treatment options. This suggests that current reporting isn’t providing the information that people need. Given these concerns, it is imperative for media outlets to report accurate information on prevention, medical resources, symptoms, testing, and treatment without stigmatizing marginalized groups.

In order to alleviate access issues, the White House is releasing 1.6 million vaccines over the next couple of months, increasing testing, and working with community leaders to connect with high-risk populations. However, Prep4all and Partners in Health have criticized the White House for not doing enough to curb the spread of MPV and cite the number of vaccines sitting in storage due to the refusal of the US to recognize the results of a European inspection. They call on the White House to recognize those results and release the vaccines as soon as possible, as the current vaccination plan will not be enough to cover everyone in high-risk populations.

More needs to be done in order to get resources and information to at-risk populations. However, the current reporting of the MPXV outbreak is contributing to stigma against the LGBTQ and Black communities. We have experienced what that can do to public health outcomes in the past with HIV and syphilis. We cannot make the same mistakes now. We can and must do better.

Sareen Khakh is a student at the UCLA School of Law with a Bachelor of Health Science degree from the University of Missouri and is currently a Holley Law Fellow with the National LGBTQ Task Force

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