Advocates warn that stigma could pose a public health threat as a number of monkeypox cases raise concern in the queer community.
Health authorities are investigating more than two dozen confirmed cases of monkeypox in Canada as part of an unprecedented outbreak of the rare disease that rarely spreads outside Africa.
On Thursday, the Canadian Public Health Agency said that 25 cases had been confirmed in Quebec, in addition to one infection in Ontario, and it expected the toll to rise in the coming days.
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Officials say that while everyone is susceptible to contracting the virus, clusters of cases have been reported among men who have sex with men.
For some LGBT advocates, this raises the specter of the sexual stigma that has made gay and bisexual men the scapegoats for the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Others say the early detection of monkeypox cases by sexual health clinics shows how he mobilized the queer community to dismantle shame and promote safe practices.
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Canada’s deputy chief public health official said he is aware of the potential for stigma and discrimination, stressing that the spread of the virus is not restricted to a particular group or sexual orientation.
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Early indications are that the virus is spreading in certain communities, and authorities are working to raise awareness among those at risk of increased exposure, Dr. Howard Ngo said at a news conference on Thursday.
Ngo said the disease can be transmitted through close contact with a sick person, including but not limited to sexual activity. Scientists are still working to determine why the virus has crossed borders.
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Aaron Purdy, executive director of the British Columbia Men’s Health Initiative, said he was concerned that the spread of fear and stigma could pose a greater threat than the disease itself.
“Stigma spreads like a virus,” Purdy said. “Yes, it is treatable. Yes, it is containable. But it spreads nonetheless.”
Purdy said stigma can be a major obstacle to effective prevention and treatment of disease, especially for gay men who have experienced systemic discrimination by the health care system.
Silence tends to perpetuate stigma, so one of the best strategies to combat it is to provide accurate and timely information without “shame or blame,” said Dane Griffiths, director of the Gay Men’s Sexual Health Coalition of Ontario.
The identification of monkeypox cases in MSM speaks to the success of community-led efforts to improve access to sexual health testing and care, Griffiths said.
“There are gay and bisexual men showing up all over the world in clinics and doctors’ offices and being seen and counted,” Griffiths said. “That’s a good thing, and it’s really encouraged within our community.”
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