‘This is not a gay virus’: Health officials address misconceptions about monkeypox

A sign on a beige wall that says "Anchorage Health Department"
The Anchorage Health Department has a limited supply of monkeypox vaccines available for eligible patients. (Joey Mendolia/Alaska Public Media)

Identity Health Clinic in Anchorage expects to receive monkeypox vaccines in the coming weeks. 

In the meantime, the nonprofit, which serves the LGBTQ+ community, is educating people about the virus and addressing misconceptions about how it spreads.

“Anyone can get monkeypox,” Identity health director Dr. Tracey Wiese said at a virtual town hall Thursday evening. “This isn’t a virus that’s only being spread because gay people are having sex with other gay people.”

Wiese said the monkeypox virus has an incubation period of one to two weeks. About 12,000 cases have been reported nationwide, and there are just two confirmed cases in Alaska so far, both in Anchorage men.

“We suspect that those two folks have probably had some kind of contact with other folks in their lives, and it’s possible other people are incubating the virus as we speak,” Wiese said.

Monkeypox is spread during prolonged face-to-face or skin-to-skin contact. It’s not exclusively spread through sexual contact, but that’s how most infected people are catching it, according to the World Health Organization

It can also spread through contact with an infected person’s belongings, such as towels, linens and utensils, if used for several hours.

Wiese said clinic staff have received phone calls from people wanting to learn more about monkeypox. She said she wants to help reduce misinformation and stigma around how it spreads.

“This is not a gay virus. This is not a virus that’s only been seen among gay people,” Wiese said. “The reason why we’re focusing outreach within this community is simply that many of the reported cases have fallen within this community, so the natural thing is to target outreach to those communities.” 

Infected people may have flu-like symptoms before a rash or sores.

Several state health officials also joined Thursday’s town hall. State epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin told the group that people can spread the virus to others even before the rash appears.

“You can have respiratory symptoms, like a runny nose, things that just seem like a cold or even COVID or the flu, and there’s probably virus in those fluids,” he said. “Transmission is possible through that route, but it probably requires prolonged kissing and face-to-face contact for that transmission to occur.”

Scientists are still studying whether monkeypox can spread through other bodily fluids, like semen or vaginal fluids, and whether it can spread asymptomatically.

For now, there are ways people can help reduce the spread. Wiese said people who become infected should isolate themselves until their symptoms improve or disappear entirely. The rash should be well covered until it’s completely healed.

People who aren’t infected should avoid close physical contact with people with flu-like symptoms, sores or rashes. And people should talk to their sexual partners about any recent flu-like symtpoms or any new sores or rashes.

Last week, the state expanded vaccine eligibility beyond just current cases and their recent close contacts. Now, men and transgender people who both have sex with men and have had multiple or anonymous sexual partners in the past 14 days can get the vaccine.

People in that group should talk to their health care provider about getting vaccinated, especially if they’re immunocompromised. Those with a history of atopic dermatitis — including eczema, burns or severe acne — are also at higher risk for severe disease.

State physician Dr. Lisa Rabinowitz said the sooner people can get vaccinated after being exposed, the better.

“Ideally, if we can get the vaccine in the first four days after an exposure, it has the best efficacy in preventing monkeypox infection,” she said. “But from day four to 14, we still give it, and there’s evidence it will decrease the amount of symptoms.”

In Anchorage, the city’s health department has a limited vaccine supply available. More information is available at 907-343-6718 or monkeypox@anchorageak.gov. Rabinowitz said the state also hopes to work with companies like Fairweather – which ran COVID testing sites in Anchorage until mid-July – to distribute vaccines.

Identity expects to receive a supply of doses sometime in the next two weeks.

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