Monkeypox is not a sexually-transmitted infection exclusive to men who have sex with men, a World Health Organization (WHO) official said Monday to combat stigma and discrimination.
While the world is seeing some cases among that group, anyone can get monkeypox through close contact with an infected person, said Andy Seale, an adviser to the World Health Organization’s Global HIV, Hepatitis and STIs programs.
“It seems clear that this is linked to close contact. This could be through social contact, possibly through sexual contact, which of course is close contact (but) we’re still in the early days of this outbreak so there’s a lot we’re still learning,” said Seale during a virtual question-and-answer event.
“While we’re seeing some cases among men who have sex with men, this is not a gay disease as some people on social media have attempted to label it. Anybody can contract monkeypox through close contact.”
The world also needs to know monkeypox is not a sexually-transmitted infection, Seale added.
“You can get a cough or cold through sexual contact, but that doesn’t mean it’s a sexually-transmitted disease. Typically, you need an exchange of vaginal fluids or semen that has an element of contagion to it to transmit the disease,” he said.
“The difference is that a sexually-transmitted infection is caused by sexual intercourse, anal intercourse, vaginal intercourse, or oral sex.”
Recent cases of monkeypox around the world have researchers scrambling to find out how the virus is spreading in countries that typically don’t see it. Monkeypox is usually found in certain parts of Africa, where it is endemic.
At least five cases have been confirmed in Canada and investigators are working to identify more.
On Friday, Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, said under a “couple dozen of people” were under investigation for monkeypox in the country.
Monkeypox is an orthopoxvirus that typically transmits to humans from animals. It usually causes fever, chills, rash and lesions on the face or genitals.
Among humans, it can be spread through close contact with an infected person or their clothing or bedsheets, but sexual transmission has not yet been documented.
Most people recover from monkeypox within a few weeks without requiring hospitalization. Vaccines against smallpox, a related disease, are helpful in preventing monkeypox, and some antiviral drugs are being developed.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Dr. David Heymann, former head of the WHO’s emergencies department, said the leading theory to explain the recent spread of monkeypox in Europe was sexual contact among men who have sex with men at two raves held in Spain and Belgium.
“It’s very possible there was somebody who got infected, developed lesions on the genitals, hands or somewhere else, and then spread it to others when there was sexual or close, physical contact,” Heymann said.
“And then there were these international events that seeded the outbreak around the world, into the U.S. and other European countries.”
As cases began to be identified in men who have sex with men, health officials urged the public not to rush to conclusions as monkeypox is not exclusive to one certain group.
“The community of men who have sex with men has been historically incredibly stigmatized with relation to virus infection, so I want to be very careful to say that that link has not been finalized yet,” Angela Rasmussen, a virologist with the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization at the University of Saskatchewan, told Global News on Thursday.
Health officials have been describing what they’ve been learning as they’re investigating monkeypox, and it’s not meant to discriminate one group, said Dr. Rosamund Lewis, head smallpox secretariat with the WHO Emergencies Programme.
“It’s not about discrimination, it’s not about stigma, it’s about where are you seeing the first cases,” she said on Monday.
“Where is it spreading now and how is it spreading now? These are questions we ask ourselves during an outbreak investigation.”
To date, the WHO has recorded more than 90 cases of monkeypox in a dozen countries including Britain, Spain, Israel, France, Switzerland, the U.S. and Australia.
In developed countries with advanced health-care systems, monkeypox can be contained, said Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, technical lead for COVID-19 at the WHO.
“But we can’t take our eye off the ball of what’s happening in Africa and endemic countries,” she said Monday.
“So this gives us an opportunity to talk about what monkeypox is, what it isn’t, so you can be very well informed.”
— with files from The Associated Press
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