Officials in New York City have declared the spread of monkeypox a public health emergency, calling the city the epicenter of the outbreak. Leaders in New Jersey are watching cases tick up, too, with the total there approaching 200.
The way monkeypox spreads is through prolonged close contact, which can happen between anyone — but officials are focusing outreach and availability on the population affected most so far: LGBTQ men. That's because all viruses are opportunists, and monkeypox has taken advantage of close, intimate contact in that community to spark outbreaks.
The situation creates a unique challenge: How do you target that outreach without stigmatizing the very people public health officials hope to help?
Christian Fuscarino, executive director of Garden State Equality, spoke with Sean Carlson of All Things Considered on WNYC. The transcript of their conversation below has been lightly edited for clarity.
Sean Carlson: Christian, thanks for being here.
Christian Fuscarino: Thanks for having me on.
Carlson: We want make clear off the bat — monkeypox is not considered a sexually transmitted infection, but as we said, the majority of cases so far are among LGBTQ men, specifically men who have sex with men. So again, officials are trying to ensure that LGBTQ populations have access to care vaccines. How effective do you think that outreach has been so far?
Fuscarino: Well, here in New Jersey, the rollout of the limited supply of vaccines that we have has been targeted to communities such as the LGBTQ community and communities with health care disparities — individuals like men who have sex with men. And we've done that successfully here because the vaccines have been to delivered to LGBTQ- and HIV-serving organizations.
Carlson: A lot of our listeners probably remember all too well when HIV/AIDS was thought of as quote-unquote, "the gay plague" — when people who identified as straight thought they weren't at risk. It also became an excuse to shun LGBTQ people as diseased or dirty. Do we risk making those same mistakes with monkeypox? Are you seeing examples in the public discourse about the disease?
Fuscarino: Well, let's be clear. Right now there are cases of monkeypox in New Jersey, and not all of those cases are within the LGBTQ community. And so it's important to recognize from the beginning, which you've done so well on this program, that monkeypox is not a disease that only affects LGBTQ people. And those who are currently infected with monkeypox are not exclusive to the LGBTQ community.
And so as we talk about this, we need to talk about this as something that is affecting the general population while at the same time figuring out where the virus is being most active right now.
Carlson: Given that, for people listening who don't identify as LGBTQ — what's the takeaway they should be taking from this? What's the takeaway for people who may think of monkeypox as an LGBTQ-only concern?
Fuscarino: It's important for folks who are listening, who may just be learning about monkeypox for the first time to recognize, as you've mentioned, that this isn't a sexually transmitted disease. This is skin-to-skin contact. And so you could contract monkeypox from giving somebody a hug, from brushing up against them, perhaps standing on the subway, from skin-to-skin contact, from kissing someone. And so it's important that everyone is mindful. You know, we just went through a year, or multiple years, unfortunately, of the COVID-19 pandemic, and we needed to take precautions to help slow the spread.
Editor's note: For the latest guidance on how monkeypox can spread, check the Centers for Disease Control.
Carlson: What about for members of the LGBTQ community — when they hear about monkeypox, and maybe the risk associated with it and opportunities for care? What should they be taking away here?
Fuscarino: What I want to encourage as an LGBTQ advocate and leader of Garden State Equality is: Now is the time to be vocal and engaged in how many vaccines are being distributed to our area. We know that New York City has received 110,000 more vaccines the distribution for their population size. And we know that here in New Jersey, we've received a smaller percentage than we should have for our population size. And so not only do we want make sure that New Jersey is getting our fair share of the vaccines, but given our proximity to New York City and Philadelphia, we should be receiving a higher rate than our population size.
Carlson: Given that, when we talk about what more we can do to make sure vaccines and other resources get to the people who need them, what can we do beyond messaging?
Fuscarino: What we've done really well, in spite of the limited number of vaccines, is making sure that vaccines are available at hours that are outside of the 9-5 workday, making sure that essential workers and industry workers who are in close contact with members of the general population are vaccinated, making sure that those that don't have a primary care physician or have a hard time finding health facilities to meet their health needs have access to these vaccinations.
Garden State Equality is encouraging New Jersey residents to contact congressional leaders to advocate for greater distributions of monkeypox vaccine to their state.