We are in the middle of yet another health emergency, and it isn’t nearly as cute as its name suggests.
Currently, monkeypox is surging globally — including throughout DC — and with it comes a myriad of misinformation and false claims that are running almost as rampant.
Confused? Well, we’re here to help! Sexual + Being is breaking down the facts around monkeypox and giving you the information you need to stay as healthy and safe as possible.
What is monkeypox?
Before we go any further, let’s break down the basics.
Monkeypox is a disease caused by infection with the monkeypox virus. According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), the virus is part of the same family of viruses as the variola virus — which causes smallpox.
Monkeypox’s symptoms are similar to smallpox’s symptoms but milder, and they are rarely fatal. It can begin with “flu-like” symptoms like fever, headache, muscle aches, swollen lymph nodes, chills, and exhaustion. Within one to three days (sometimes longer) after the appearance of a fever, the patient can develop a rash — often beginning on the face and then spreading across the body — that can progress from flat and red to bump-like, pus-filled lesions that will eventually scab over. Symptoms typically appear between 7-14 days of exposure, with the illness lasting roughly two to four weeks.
As of July 23, monkeypox is considered a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) by the World Health Organization (WHO). Vox says outbreaks qualify as a PHEIC if it’s unusual or unexpected, has potential for international spread, and requires an immediate global response. Unlike pandemics, a PHEIC like monkeypox has not grown out of control but has the potential to do so if unaddressed.
Got it? Ok, cool. Now, let’s go myth-busting.
FACT: Gay men are *not* the only ones impacted by monkeypox
Say it with me, please, because it isn’t the truth: Monkeypox is not a gay illness, point blank. Period. End of story.
The truth behind this falsehood seems to come from guidance on those most impacted by the virus at this time. Throughout this current outbreak, men who have sex with men (MSM) are yielding most of the present cases. A New England Journal of Medicine study found that 98% of people in over a dozen countries diagnosed between April and June identify as gay or bisexual men, while the WHO says that 99% of cases in the US are related to male-to-male sexual contact.
But let’s be clear: MSM are among the most at risk of contracting the virus, not the *only* ones who can catch it. That distinction is crucial because drawing such conclusions about transmission can lead to profound and unfair stigmatization of LGBTQ+ individuals and lull others into a false sense of security in believing this virus cannot affect them. Monkeypox can infect anyone, even if it’s currently hitting certain communities harder.
FACT: Monkeypox is *not* an STI
Saying that monkeypox can be transmitted during sexual contact is an entirely fair and accurate statement but does that make it a sexually transmitted infection (STI)? The answer is no.
Northwestern Medicine infectious diseases expert Dr. Robert L. Murphy said in a June 14 recent press release that monkeypox is spread by close physical contact with lesions or an infected person. It’s the close “skin-to-skin” contact during sex that helps the virus spread due to the likely close personal proximity with sexual partners, not necessarily that act(s) themselves. That difference is critical here and highlights why some may incorrectly read it as an STI.
A person can get infected with monkeypox if they come into contact with the virus from an animal, human, or items contaminated with the virus (i.e., clothes, bed sheets, shared glassware, etc.) for more extended periods of time, per the CDC. It gets into the body through broken skin, the respiratory tract, or the mucous membranes (eyes, nose, or mouth). Sex can be a method of transmission — and it is currently the most likely — but it’s not the only way to become infected.
FACT: Monkeypox is preventable
Getting monkeypox is not a foregone conclusion if you take the proper precautions.
Sexually active men, transgender women and non-binary persons assigned male at birth that sleep with men are considered high-risk populations and are eligible to sign up for vaccinations through DC Health. If you are a part of that population, please reach out to your medical provider for more information about receiving a vaccine and/or pre-register now at preventmonkeypox.dc.gov to get contacted when you can make an appointment.
Be sure to follow the “don’t catch a cold” rules of washing your hands and regular cleaning of bed linens and clothes to stop any virus on them from infecting you. On July 27, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus advised MSM to also consider reducing their number of sex partners and reconsider sex with new partners to stop possible transmission.
FACT: Not every blemish is a sign of monkeypox
Our anxiety-riddled brains may see a new zit or irritation and begin spiraling at the thought that we have become infected. This writer is certainly guilty of such spiraling! But, in those anxious moments, it’s important to remember to keep calm and know what to look for.
In most (but not all) cases, a fever and flu-ish symptoms are your first tell-tale signs that you’re not well. If you have a familiar-looking mark on your skin and feel otherwise fine, you may not have it at all, but it’s important to remain calm and check in with yourself. That may mean seeking medical advice from your doctor or provider, which is perfectly fine.
What’s critical here is to look for the unfamiliar in terms of your body. These sores tend to follow a particular pattern. WebMD says they’ll likely start as flat, round lesions called macules that will then grow into raised bumps (papules), then fill with clear fluid (vesicles) and then a yellowish fluid (pustules) before scabbing over. These sores have been reported to be very painful and, in this outbreak, have appeared commonly near the anus, rectum, and genitals … although they are possible throughout the body.
If you are at all concerned or not feeling well, please contact a medical professional. Do not work yourself up alone.
FACT: COVID-19 causes monkeypox
Yeah, this one’s just a no. See the first section for the facts on monkeypox’s origins decades before COVID-19 existed. Sorry, no dice!
For more information on monkeypox prevention, treatment and updates, visit DC Health’s preventmonkeypox.dc.gov and watch a recording of DC’s recent monkeypox town hall.