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CDC is urging LGBTQ+ people to get mpox vaccine during Pride Month

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The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of the Assistant Secretary of Health are once again teaming up to get the word out about mpox and urge members of the LGBTQ+ community to get vaccinated this Pride Month.

Two years ago, the virus that causes the infectious disease formerly known as monkeypox began spreading in the U.S. and Europe, causing an outbreak that saw, at its peak between July and August 2022, around 3,000 new cases per week in the U.S. The virus spreads through close personal contact, including direct skin-to-skin contact and contact with objects, fabrics, and surfaces. It causes a painful rash, but symptoms can also include headache, fever, chills, body ache, fatigue, and swollen lymph glands, and according to the CDC, about 10 percent of those who got sick with mpox were hospitalized. During the 2022 outbreak, at least 58 people in the U.S. died of the disease.

Anyone can contract mpox, but the 2022 global outbreak was particularly prominent among men who have sex with men. As CNN notes, case reports indicate that 90 percent of people who contracted the disease during the 2022 outbreak and reported their sexual orientation were gay or bisexual men.

Over the past two years, case numbers in the U.S. have dropped dramatically with the widespread availability of the two-dose Jynneos vaccine, which is now available at pharmacies and from regular medical providers. But in a report last month, the CDC noted that only 23 percent of people at risk of mpox infection in the U.S. had received both doses of the vaccine.

Messaging around the virus has all but disappeared in the U.S. since HHS officially declared an end to the national public health emergency over a year ago. Since then, small mpox outbreaks have occurred in New York, North Carolina, and Colorado. And a study released earlier this year found that closeted men who have sex with men were less likely to get vaccinated or treated for mpox due to lack of information about the virus and the vaccine.

Last year, the CDC and the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary of Health worked with local organizations and community health partners on their “Summer of Pride” initiative, and they’re doing the same this year.

“This effort is really focusing on improving vaccine equity by partnering with health departments and community-based organizations to provide comprehensive sexual health services, including mpox vaccines, at local pride and LGBTQIA+ events,” Christina Hutson, chief of the CDC’s Poxvirus and Rabies Branch, told the Washington Post’s Health Brief newsletter this week. “We’re also leaning on some of our existing partnerships with LGBTQIA+ organizations, and we have social media influencers we work with to make sure we’re getting that communication out there.”

Hutson noted that a recent CDC report looked at over 32,000 probable or confirmed mpox cases from the start of the 2022 outbreak to May 2024, and found that less than one percent of cases occurred in people who were fully vaccinated.

“This really illustrates that the vaccine is effective, and when we do see breakthrough infections, they are generally more mild,” Hutson explained. “The data set doesn’t indicate that a booster is necessary, but it does illustrate that only 1 in 4 people who are eligible are fully vaccinated.”

“I do think some people are surprised that it is still a problem,” Adrianna Boulin, director of racial equity, social justice and community engagement at Fenway Health, told CNN. “Last year, we had such a robust program of getting education and information out to people, and we saw mpox rates decline initially, so everyone is surprised, like ‘wow, this is still an issue.’ It’s important for everyone to know about it, because it can impact all of us.”

Alex Tuttle, an epidemiologist with the CDC’s Poxvirus and Rabies Branch, stressed the importance of both doses of the Jynneos vaccine.

“About a quarter of the population that we believe is at risk is currently vaccinated, so we really want to push that up, especially as we’re going into these summer months where risk might be heightened a little bit,” Tuttle said.

Last week, the CDC released another report indicating the effectiveness of the vaccine. Among 196 patients who were evaluated at emergency rooms between June and December 2023 for mpox-like rashes, only three actually had the disease, and all three were gay or bisexual men who were unvaccinated.

More troublingly, the CDC is currently tracking an outbreak of a more deadly strain of mpox in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Unlike the clade II strain that spread in the U.S. and Europe two years ago and only resulted in death in about 0.1%–3.6% of cases, the clade I strain has resulted in death in 1.4%–10% of cases. To date, no cases of the more lethal clade I mpox strain have been reported in the U.S. or any other countries where the virus is not endemic, and Tuttle told CNN that the Jynneos vaccine should provide protection against both strains of the virus.

Brian Hujdich, executive director of the National Coalition for LGBT Health, warned that Pride events and other summer festivities could become vectors for increased spread amongst those who are unvaccinated.

“We’ve seen already that there has been an increase in Virginia and in New York City and in some other locations,” he told CNN. “So it might not be in numbers that get a lot of attention, but even a small increase can be a preamble to an outbreak.”

With that in mind the Hujdich’s organization and others will be at Pride and other LGBTQ+ events to get the word out — chiefly that getting vaccinated provides peace of mind.

“You don’t have to be worried about being in contact with people if you’ve been vaccinated,” Hujdich said. “So it gives you the freedom to enjoy and be proud during Pride.”

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