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Destigmatizing Monkeypox

Photo taken by the CDC on Unsplash

Last updated on September 10, 2022

After the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone was ready to go back to normal. To no longer have to deal with quarantine, masks, and vaccines. There were high hopes that the worst of the disease was behind us. Even as the long-term effects of the pandemic show no signs of stopping. And yet, when we all thought it was over, a virus resurfaced in the Western world. Monkeypox, which by all means is not new, has been endemic in ten African countries throughout its discovery. Cases beginning in May began to reach the United States and European countries. Not only is there concern for a pandemic, but concern over the growing social impacts of monkeypox and its lasting effects. 

Monkeypox is a zoonotic virus. This means it can transfer from humans to animals. It is similar to smallpox, with rash-like symptoms, but much milder. One can tell if they have monkeypox based on rashes on their body. This can typically be on the genitalia, but sometimes on the hands, feet, chest, face, or mouth. There can be other symptoms that come before or after the rash, but there is always a rash. Monkeypox spreads through intimate contact, close contact, animal bites or scratches, and to newborns at birth. More information on this virus is at the CDC and the WHO websites.

As mentioned, monkeypox was found within central and western Africa, despite not being discovered there. This, of course, points to the fact that monkeypox can show up anywhere in the world. The most likely fact for it staying within Africa is unequal healthcare opportunities. As a result, the media coverage for this disease has only happened as it has spread further than Africa. Identical to the beginnings of COVID-19, where it was labeled as the China virus or Wuhan virus, there have been similar claims with monkeypox. Often monkeypox is shown in Western media with an African person who has symptoms. This suggests that it is African in nature, something entirely false.

This leads to one of the issues that have arisen with the existence of monkeypox. Besides its obvious harm, there is mass stigmatization around it. The disease has been associated with gay and bisexual men because of how it spreads through bodily fluids and the rates at which they’re contracting it. Make no mistakes, anyone can get this disease, regardless of their gender or sexuality. No matter any factor. While this has led to harmful ideas continuing, it hurts another community. People with disabilities. Finding that when people panic about monkeypox, a lot of the language they use is negative. It makes it seem as though people should be afraid of disfigurement or looking unbeautiful. This perpetuates messaging about how people with any kind of facial disfigurement are something almost less than beautiful. While it’s understandable to have concern if you get monkeypox, we must use careful language. 

If we stop swapping blame and start putting more attention to the images and words we say, people may feel less shame for getting monkeypox. That means people could have a willingness to alert others of their condition. Hence limiting the spread of monkeypox. But that isn’t the only thing you can do. Try avoiding physical intimacy with someone who has the rash-like symptoms of monkeypox, or even something similar to it. This includes trying on clothing or touching something which might have bodily fluids on it. If you fear that this has already happened to you, seek a doctor, and make sure to wash your hands. Unlike the COVID-19 pandemic, steps are in place to best mitigate this. That is why, if you are eligible or feel particularly worried, getting the monkeypox vaccine would be a good idea.

When faced with new diseases, it is always good to maintain hygiene and caution. In the case of monkeypox, a tense situation created by our COVID-19 pandemic preyed on people’s fears. But, as we have all learned with COVID-19, it is harmful and counterproductive to speak about diseases with ableist, homophobic, and racist undertones. We should worry about making sure we can mitigate the disease. And not attack groups or pin blame on them. If anyone is to blame, it is the world for ignoring the ails and infections in the developing countries in Africa. Even though it’s too late now, we can work to listen to warnings and be careful enough so that fewer people get affected.

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