Where’s the Noise About Monkeypox Gone?
At the time of writing, over 18,000 cases of monkeypox have been confirmed in the US. The UK’s on 3,000, though this figure hasn’t been updated since August 15th. Probably because it’s looking as though the outbreak affecting the globe is declining on our isolated island.
However, there was a brief point recently when news of monkeypox felt inescapable, much like the pandemic that must not be named. I think it’s fair to say we were all a little worried that another viral phenomenon was coming along to spoil the fun, especially after the most ‘normal’ summer in a couple of years. But the storm of monkeypox headlines seemed to pass as quickly as they came, and it’s gotten me thinking ‘why?’.
The monkeypox timeline
Let’s go back to 6th May 2022. Initial clusters of monkeypox were found in the UK, marking the first time the virus had spread ‘widely’ outside of Central and West Africa. Naturally, this made headline news, with noise growing louder as more countries and more regions reported cases. Europe, Oceania, and both ends of the US joined the party, leading the World Health Organisation (WHO) to declare a public health emergency of ‘international concern’. A scene that felt all too familiar for most.
Today (1st September), there’s been 51,257 confirmed cases in more than 100 countries, with the US reporting the world’s highest number of monkeypox infections. Thinking back to the initial weeks of the UK’s Covid-19 battle, the sheer number of cases coming from Italy (always slightly ahead of our curve, remember?) were consistently communicated to us. To warn us, to (try to) prepare us. So, an initial thought – why aren’t we as bothered by this seemingly significant stat coming from the US?
Obviously, I’m no medical expert. Meaning, it’s not for me to compare monkeypox to Covid-19 (or any other virus). But I’m a member of the public intrigued by the difference in public response, despite the often fear-mongering nature of reporting. And I’ve been pooling some theories:
- Have we become a nation of citizen medics since Covid-19? I.e, we’ve become more knowledgeable on virus and disease, elevating our ability to self-decide where monkeypox should be on our agenda?
- In the same way, are we actively playing more ‘ignorant’ to health threats, preferring to celebrate the revival of things we lost to that previous one, instead?
- Are we relating more to other ‘relentless’ news, like the cost-of-living crisis, than monkeypox? Is concern for our bank balances drowning out the noise of a treatable virus?
- And finally, how prevalent is the influence of archaic stigmas stuck to monkeypox? What’s the impact on how we perceive those infected? Are there certain elements to the virus that feel too ‘sensitive’ or ‘shameful’ for general conversation?
Let’s get into it.
The virus that must not be named
It’s been difficult, but I’ve been actively trying to avoid referencing the ‘new norm’ in any content I write for clients. First, it feels so 2021. Second, and on a more serious note, I think we’re all pretty pandemic-fatigued. In the same way, I’ve said ‘goodbye’ to describing anything as ‘unprecedented’ – just look how much that spiked during Covid-19:
But it hasn’t stopped monkeypox being labelled with the same adjective. Back in May, The Independent ran the headline ‘UK monkeypox outbreak ‘unprecedented’‘ – and if we think back a few years ago, I’m sure that the use of the word would have had significant impact. Yet now? Language changes with time. Have we exhausted ‘unprecedented’ to the point that its lost any real meaning?
Sure, the numbers of monkeypox cases haven’t been as startling. But they’re still striking. And the severity of illness, perhaps not as headline grabbing as the intensive care wards bursting at the seams with extremely ill Covid-19 patients. But it’s still an infection that makes you feel pretty rough, characterised by fever, intense headaches, and muscle pain. Not to mention the visible rash that tends to be concentrated on the face, hands, and feet. Which jumps me to my fourth point – associating monkeypox with sexual behaviour making us shy away from talking about it?
Is monkeypox an STI?
99% of cases in the UK have been among men, with primary transmission coming from interconnected sexual networks of gay, bisexual, or other men who have sex with men. Evidence of sustained transmission outside of these networks isn’t robust, so is sexual behaviour stigma contributing to the bigger problem at hand?
And how, then, do we achieve the right balance? It‘s a fine line to walk and get ‘right’. The NHS states that monkeypox ‘can be passed on from person to person through any close physical contact with monkeypox blisters or scabs (including during sexual contact)’. But labelling of monkeypox exclusively as a sexually transmitted infection (STI) is misleading. Yes, it can be spread through sexual activities, but it is also be spread through close non-sexual contact. Such misinformation can hugely prejudice public perception, and potentially harm public health even further – for example, carriers of the virus might believe they cannot pass it on if they abstain from sexual activities. Some have said the delay in public health experts offering an explanation as to why this outbreak has affected mostly gay and bisexual men draws parallels with the 1970s and 80s. Namely, feelings of abandonment among the gay community during the AIDS crisis. Thankfully, education on this particular topic has hugely broadened since, working to breakdown any associated stigmas. Isn’t that something we should be learning from in the case of monkeypox, then?
What’s public education of monkeypox like?
Let’s throw another popular pandemic curse phrase into the ring: social distancing. There was a 32% drop in new cases of STIs in England during the strictest lockdown rules – impressive, right! Instead of limiting the application of this knowledge solely to sexual activities, could it be placed across the board? Like, placing a higher focus on educating the public on the symptoms, various routes of transmission, and available treatments to help drive down infection rates. And let that stigma eradicate itself.
That’s the other thing. Unlike Covid-19, preventative measures are readily available. The smallpox vaccine gives a ‘good level’ of protection against the virus, and is about 85% effective It was first introduced way back in 1796 to combat what was one of the deadliest diseases known to humans at the time. Surely, this is a way to use this particular outbreak to promote the cause?
But then we come back full-circle to what’s being reported in the news. Monkeypox rises, but the media is placing more focus on our limited supplies of the vaccine. I agree this is concerning, almost as much as the reason why: we keep stockpiles of the smallpox vaccine in case of someone, somewhere, weaponises smallpox. Equally, if the outbreak is indeed slowing and is set to have just come and gone without causing too much disruption, maybe it’s the wake-up call we needed to shake off the fatigue caused by the last pandemic and get set for the next.
Winter health forecast
Heading into the winter months, we expect the ‘normal’ flurry of headlines about common seasonal illnesses, like the flu. But what’s to be seen is how far our reactions to the usually-grim statistics on patient admissions, hospital capacity, and now instances of Covid-19, will differ. More, or less? And will monkeypox remain buried among the noise because it’s affected the few, not the many?
None of us have a crystal ball. But one thing feels certain – the way we react to health and medical news is changing. And who’s to say how that will play out.