Health

Colorado Governor Polis Warns Against Anti-Gay Bias Linked to Monkeypox

Governor Jared Polis's press release about monkeypox doesn't mention the disease's connection to men sleeping with other men.
Governor Jared Polis's press release about monkeypox doesn't mention the disease's connection to men sleeping with other men. colorado.gov
On May 26, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment announced the first presumptive case of monkeypox in the state, noting that the infection was awaiting confirmation by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Today, May 27, the CDC's "2022 United States Monkeypox Response and Recommendations" web page lists the Colorado infection, which brings the current U.S. total to ten.

The CDPHE's release explicitly states that "men who have sex with other men" are "at a higher risk for monkeypox exposure" and adds that "the presumptive case is a young adult male who sought care in the Denver area, and is a man who has sex with men." Moreover, CDC director Rochelle Walensky has confirmed that the nine other cases in the U.S. all involved men who have sex with men.

However, the monkeypox response from the office of Governor Jared Polis, among the country's most prominent openly gay politicians, makes no mention of the link between infections and men who have sex with men. Instead, the bulletin notes that "scientists continue to believe that monkeypox is primarily transmitted by close contact, which includes transmission during sex," and stresses that the malady "is not typically fatal for those with healthy immune systems."

Conor Cahill, Polis's press secretary, insists that the governor was clear about the perils of monkeypox in his statement, saying that the governor "reiterated that the risk to the public remains low and monkeypox can be transmitted through high-risk exposures, which includes transmission through heterosexual or homosexual sexual activities."

At the same time, though, Polis is keenly aware that closely associating any demographic with a life-threatening illness can have terribly negative consequences.

"History has taught us that stigmatization can occur when a new disease emerges," Cahill says. "We saw it with COVID — dog whistles and violent acts targeted Asian communities, and we know stigma surrounding the AIDS crisis decades ago continues to cause great harm to LGBTQ+ communities today."

Similar observations are at the heart of the May 27 Los Angeles Times article headlined "As Monkeypox Cases Grow, So Do Fears of a Return of Gay Blame and Stigma." The piece notes that a May 19 alert from Germany's disease-control center "warned men who have sex with men to 'seek immediate medical attention' if they detect signs of the disease." This singling-out "has sparked fears that gay and bisexual men, who appear to account for the majority of Europe’s monkeypox cases so far, are once again in danger of being stigmatized as carriers of an exotic and frightening disease, just as they were during the AIDS crisis."

Monkeypox has actually been around for decades. The CDC points out that it "was first discovered in 1958 when two outbreaks of a pox-like disease occurred in colonies of monkeys kept for research, hence the name ‘monkeypox.’ The first human case of monkeypox was recorded in 1970 in the Democratic Republic of Congo during a period of intensified effort to eliminate smallpox. Since then monkeypox has been reported in humans in other central and western African countries."
click to enlarge A colorized Centers for Disease Control and Prevention image of monkeypox. - CDC.GOV
A colorized Centers for Disease Control and Prevention image of monkeypox.
In addition to Europe, recent monkeypox cases have been found in Canada, where the Colorado patient recently traveled. But while the CDPHE says that "the risk to the public continues to be low," the department also advises that "Coloradans should be aware of monkeypox symptoms and prevention." The disease often begins with "fever, headache, muscle aches, swollen lymph nodes, and exhaustion. Typically a rash develops within one to three days after the onset of fever, often beginning on the face and spreading to other parts of the body. In recent cases, the rash often starts in the genital or perianal area. The associated monkeypox rash can look similar to other infections like syphilis or herpes. The incubation period for monkeypox is usually seven to fourteen days, but can range from less than five to 21 days. Most people recover within two to four weeks."

According to the CDPHE, "Coloradans can help prevent the spread of monkeypox by avoiding close physical contact with individuals who have acquired monkeypox, wearing a high-quality mask if they will be spending time in close contact with someone experiencing symptoms of monkeypox, and contacting a health care provider as soon as possible if they experience symptoms."

Polis's office provided the following answers to four frequently asked questions about monkeypox in its aforementioned release:
How is it spread? In parts of the world where human cases of monkeypox more commonly occur, people are typically exposed through bites or scratches from infected rodents and small mammals, preparing wild game, or having contact with an infected animal or possibly animal products. Monkeypox does not happen regularly in animals that live in the United States. There are two known types of monkeypox.

What is a high-risk exposure? An example of a high-risk exposure would be unprotected contact between a person’s skin or mucous membranes and the skin, lesions, or bodily fluids from a person known to have active monkeypox virus in their body. The determination of risk and the need for vaccination following an exposure is made by a medical provider with consultation from public health.

Is there a vaccine for Monkeypox? Two vaccines are available for the prevention of monkeypox, and Colorado is requesting vaccines from the federal government. The vaccines can be used to prevent infection or decrease the severity of infection among those who have had a high-risk exposure.

Where else are there monkeypox outbreaks? Monkeypox outbreaks are currently occurring in Canada, the United Kingdom, Portugal, Spain, and other European countries. Monkeypox is rare in the United States, but has happened in people with international travel or people who had contact with animals from areas where the disease is more common.
Cahill emphasizes that Polis won't remain silent about either monkeypox or any associated prejudices. As he puts it, "The governor continues to keep the public informed as new information emerges on this threat and to speak out against stigmatization of any group."

This post has been updated to include comments from Conor Cahill, press secretary for Governor Jared Polis.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts