Monkeypox spreads by close contact, so risk to the general public remains low for now. (Courtesy CDC)

With monkeypox cases on the rise in Michigan, some queer advocates in Detroit worry the heightened risk to gay men could create a stigma for a virus that can be harmful to everyone. 

As of Friday, there were 17 confirmed cases of the virus in Detroit and 72 total across the state. Most cases are in southeast Michigan (Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Washtenaw, Livingston and St. Clair counties), but monkeypox cases also have been confirmed in Genesee, Ingham, Ionia, Montcalm, Ottawa and Kent counties.

Monkeypox is a viral infection closely related to smallpox and causes the same symptoms — flu-like fevers, headaches, backaches, muscle aches and chills. 

The virus is transmitted by close, personal contact, including skin-to-skin touches, kissing or other sexually intimate contact, or by touching fabrics or objects touched by someone infected, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It can also be transmitted to the fetus. 

The CDC has recorded over 7,510 cases nationwide as of Monday. Most cases of monkeypox involve men who have sex with men or patients that are identifying as LGBTQ, according to the CDC. 

Chris Sutton, a broadcast coordinator for LGBT Detroit, worries that monkeypox messaging will increase anti-gay stigma. (LGBT Detroit photo)

Chris Sutton, broadcast coordinator for LGBT Detroit, a nonprofit that works to create wellbeing for LGBTQ people in the city, said messaging around who is most at risk to contract monkeypox is “triggering.”

“We understand that this is something that can easily be transmitted from just skin-to-skin contact,” Sutton told BridgeDetroit, “but the wording around it was very much centered around men who sleep with men, and it’s almost being treated as if it’s an STI or STD that is specifically only being spread in the gay community, the same way people talked about HIV and AIDS during the 80s.”

It’s well documented that former President Ronald Reagan’s administration didn’t take the HIV epidemic seriously for years, insisting it was a “gay plague” rather than a public health crisis. 

Patricia Wren, chair of the Department of Public Health at Wayne State University, said the messaging around monkeypox makes people assume it is only sexually tramsitted, but it’s mostly spread through long periods of close contact, not necessarily sex.

“Right now, there may be more cases in men who have sex with men. These men may also be better informed about sexually transmitted diseases and, thus, more likely to see their physician if worrying symptoms appear,” Wren told BridgeDetroit. “But if the HIV/AIDS pandemic taught us anything, it’s that viruses – including monkeypox — are transmitted by specific behaviors and not by sexual orientations or identities.”

Patricia Wren, chair of the public health department at Wayne State University, says monkeypox is spread mostly among gay men right now but that won’t last. Anyone who is in close contact with a person infected with monkeypox can catch the virus.  (Patricia Wren photo)

Sutton worries that the messaging around monkeypox could create hostility against gay men, and gay men of color in particular, given the current political climate. 

“It’s a weird time as laws are being changed with the overturning of Roe v. Wade. We also know there’s a conversation about maybe overturning same-sex marriage,” Sutton said. “Now with monkeypox potentially being used as a tool to try to frame gay men as the source of spreading this virus, it can be highly dangerous and also can create significant violence within our community.”

Sutton said focusing mainly on the gay community could be harmful to “everyone, even people who are completely straight.”

“People might see on the news that monkeypox is mostly concentrated in the gay community or the Black gay community and think ‘oh, I’m in the clear, I don’t need to worry about it,’ but then they won’t be as mindful about symptoms or just not engaging in some of the same risky behaviors,” he said. 

The Detroit Health Department conducted a town hall in late July to inform residents of the virus, how it spreads, and what they should do if they’ve been exposed. Detroit reported its first probable case of monkeypox in early July. 

Symptoms may take up to 21 days to develop after a person is exposed to the virus.

As the illness progresses, a rash might develop with blister-like pustules and scabs which, when severe, can be painful and disfiguring. The rash often lasts two to four weeks, and the person is contagious until the scabs have fallen off. Monkeypox also can cause lymph nodes to swell, but according to the World Health Organization’s fact sheet, it is rarely fatal.

Detroit’s Health Department has begun distributing doses of the monkeypox or Jynneos vaccine to residents. Denise Fair Razo, the city’s chief public health officer, has said the only people who need to get the vaccine right now are people who have had a known or a potential exposure.

BridgeDetroit could not reach Fair Razo for comment on Monday.

There are a limited number of doses in Michigan  — just more than 3,400 doses, according to the state. Michigan is limiting its supply of the vaccine, meant to be given in two doses, to a single dose per person.

Sutton hopes the city and state can increase the number of available vaccine doses soon. 

“We want to try to make sure people are vaccinated before they’re potentially exposed. So that way, they don’t have to worry about dealing with any severe symptoms,” he said. 

Being proactive is something Sutton believes will make a “huge difference” in how monkeypox affects Detroiters. 

“If we can learn anything from the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 80s or the COVID-19 pandemic we’re still in, it’s that it’s better to handle things early on then to wait for it to become an emergency,” he said. “Hopefully we learned our lessons to prevent it from becoming a bigger problem.”

If you suspect that you have monkeypox, seek treatment at a local hospital or visit your doctor. Doctors and physicians should report all potential cases to local and national health organizations — even if the cases aren’t confirmed. 

Bridge Michigan’s Robin Erb contributed to this report

Monkeypox Vaccine Locations

Wayne Health – Detroit Public Health Clinic (50 East Canfield, Detroit 48201)313-577-9100Monday thru Friday from 8 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
Vaccines available on the 1st & 3rd Saturdays of the month 8 am – 12:30 pm
Detroit Health Department (100 Mack Avenue, Detroit 48201)313-876-4000Monday thru Friday from 8 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.

Bryce Huffman is a reporter for BridgeDetroit. He was formerly a reporter for Michigan Radio, and host of the podcast, Same Same Different.

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