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Gay health centers respond to monkeypox outbreak

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

There are now more than 700 confirmed cases of monkeypox in the U.S. and over 7,000 in the world. That's according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And according to the World Health Organization, most of the cases are among men who have sex with men. Jason Cianciotto is vice president of Gay Men's Health Crisis in New York City, and he joins us now. Welcome.

JASON CIANCIOTTO: Thank you so much for having me.

RASCOE: So, I guess, can you talk a little bit about why monkeypox seems to be affecting men who have sex with men more than other communities at this point?

CIANCIOTTO: Well, we know that viruses don't see sexual orientation. And so viruses can vector in on any particular population. And this particular outbreak of monkeypox began in Europe at a large party that gay and bisexual men who have sex with men attended. Then the people in that party traveled, and community spread began to other people that they had some form of intimate contact with.

RASCOE: We should stress that monkeypox requires direct, close contact, so it makes sense that most of these cases that we're aware of are associated with intimate or sexual contact.

CIANCIOTTO: Yeah. So monkeypox is a virus very similar to smallpox. It's been endemic to Africa and primarily transmitted via contact with infected animals. What's new and different now is how well it is being transmitted through that type of intimate contact, as you said. But it doesn't necessarily have to be sexual - cuddling, massage, sharing bedding or towels that have come in contact with pustules. You know, even if you're fully clothed, if you're on the dance floor or dancing close to someone, there is the possibility of transmission.

RASCOE: The Biden administration is currently distributing about 300,000 doses of the monkeypox vaccine and says a total of 1.6 million doses will be available by the end of the year. But do you think that is enough?

CIANCIOTTO: There was a press conference on July 7 where the White House and New York City Department of Health and New York State Department of Health officials announced that there actually will be over 4 million doses in the next 12 months. We've seen this scale-up of the availability of vaccination. They also announced that they are in process of increasing the availability of commercial testing for monkeypox to 10,000 tests a day, right?

This is exactly what we needed, but it's been over a month since we knew about the first case of monkeypox in the United States and even longer since the outbreak began in Europe with much higher-known number of cases. So why has it taken so long for us to get here, especially because this isn't new? And we already have this vaccine, and we already know about monkeypox. So why has it taken so long for us to get to this place? I'm really concerned that if the monkeypox outbreak goes unchecked, that it, too, will concentrate among low-income communities of color where HIV and COVID-19 is concentrating among immigrants, particularly those undocumented who are afraid to access health care. And that would be a tragedy.

RASCOE: A lot has changed since the AIDS epidemic started. But what are some of the lessons that maybe you learned that you're using now as you contend with monkeypox?

CIANCIOTTO: One of the most important lessons is that we need to have a sex-positive approach to educating people. We are not going to end HIV, and we're certainly not going to curtail the monkeypox epidemic by trying to shame people into not having sex or only having certain types of sex with certain people. When you equip people with the information they need to make healthy choices for themselves and for their community, and when you help them approach those decisions with self-love and acceptance, it's amazing what the community is able to achieve.

You know, look what's happened in New York City. There's been 6,000 doses of the monkeypox vaccine. In just a couple of hours, the appointments for those vaccines filled up. And so we have a community of gay, bisexual men who have sex with men, transgender and gender-nonconforming people as well, who are acutely aware of their health, who are more likely to be linked to their health care providers, though there definitely is a racial and financial divide on that - and when given the right information, will take the steps needed to protect themselves and for their community.

RASCOE: So, I mean, what are the main things that you want people to know?

CIANCIOTTO: There are three things that we would like to share with gay, bisexual men who have sex with men. The first is to be aware, but don't panic. The second is that if they have flu-like symptoms or start to see a rash, to seek medical attention and stay home, right? And the third is just to care for each other, right? And that's what the second thing is about - knowing and understanding, just like we did for COVID-19. If we don't feel well, don't go out, get the help that we need and care for and educate each other.

RASCOE: That's Jason Cianciotto of Gay Men's Health Crisis. Thank you so very much.

CIANCIOTTO: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
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