By Jim Mangia | LOS ANGELES – Monkeypox virus (MPV) is on the rise – and many are understandably frustrated by the federal government’s slow response. The LGBTQ+ community has been demanding vaccines since day one, with many drawing similarities between today’s lackluster approach to MPV and the inhumane response to HIV/AIDs in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
MPV is a serious health concern that indeed deserves swift action from elected officials. But truly drawing from lessons learned during the HIV/AIDs crisis means not relying on vaccines alone – especially while waiting for the federal government and supply chain to catch up to our demand for them. We need community-wide education, prevention, and treatment strategies around MPV – and we need them now.
I was a young, gay man during the HIV/AIDs crisis. Last week, a friend and I reflected on how, out of our large social group from our early twenties, we are the only two left alive. Everyone else we loved during those years was killed by AIDS.
The Republican dominated government at the time didn’t care if we lived or died – and many preferred the latter. As AIDS dominated our lives, groups like the Gay Men’s Health Crisis mobilized, setting up hotlines to circulate information, writing and disseminating guidelines for safer sex, and creating tight-knit networks to support the sick or suffering. Simultaneously, ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) activated the LGBTQ+ community and allies to demand governmental action.
Now, we can draw on our community’s past resilience. We must keep ourselves safe, from both MPV and from the dangerous, homophobic messaging that’s emerging around it.
First, LGBTQ+ people must avoid perpetuating the dangerous myth that MPV only impacts us. The scientific truth is that pathogens often first spread among social groups in close contact with one another – for example, outbreaks of meningitis among college students. MPV is continuing to primarily impact the LGBTQ+ community because the virus hasn’t yet had the biological need to move onto another social group. This is important both in terms of combating homophobia, and also in recognizing our community’s responsibility to help prevent MPV’s spread.
We also need to emphasize that MPV is not an STI. While it is spread through close physical contact, that contact can be nonsexual. Day care workers, nannies, massage therapists, tattoo artists, and others whose livelihoods involve skin-to-skin contact are also at high risk right now, and we need to be educating and advocating for those folks as well.
Direct contact with the rash or body fluids and sexual contact are the most risky activities; kissing, cuddling, and being in crowds of non fully clothed people are moderately risky; and sharing dishes, beds, towels, toiletry items or being in crowds with fully clothed people are possible ways of contracting MPV. Limiting those activities for now and communicating with each other about exposure are essential ways to prevent spread.
There are other tools we should be advocating for in addition to vaccines. One is Tpoxx, an antiviral medication that hasn’t been approved by the FDA but is being widely and successfully used in Europe. Another is faster MPV tests – currently, the results can take several days. Only a few lab companies are approved to test MPV specimens sent by clinics and hospitals, and we need faster results to prevent further spread in real time.
Today, a multibillion dollar industry fuels many issues that plague our community – including major circuit party promoters, hookup apps, and corporations who infiltrated our pride events. These industries depend on our money, and are only interested in getting our bodies where they need them in order to cash in.
Exploitative messaging from these industries can permeate our collective consciousness. They tell us we need and deserve certain things, and we need and deserve them immediately. They don’t care about our safety, and they aren’t advocating for our actual lives. They’re just contributing to a sense of urgency in the name of their bottom line. It’s up to LGBTQ+ people to get to the root of what’s important. We must organize ourselves, act with care for each other, and demand a comprehensive strategy from LGBTQ+ institutions and the government – rather than just looking for quick-fix solutions for ourselves.
Clinics in California are expected to have thousands of vaccines available by summer’s end. In the meantime, we need community-informed prevention and treatment strategies from our leaders. And now more than ever, with both MPV and COVID-19 threatening our health, we must treat each other with consent and respect.
Jim Mangia is the president and CEO of St. John’s Community Health, a network of public health clinics serving South, Central, and East Los Angeles.