Is Monkeypox a Sexually Transmitted Disease?

Is Monkeypox a Sexually Transmitted Disease?
Photo: oasisamuel, Shutterstock

In declaring monkeypox a public health emergency of international concern, the World Health Organisation on Monday acknowledged that currently this outbreak is concentrated among men who have sex with men. The WHO director-general’s statement followed this by saying that “stigma and discrimination can be as dangerous as any virus.”

Many people misunderstand how monkeypox is transmitted, and certain news reports don’t help clear up the confusion. Medical professionals have been chiming in online to combat the spread of misinformation that conflates the virus with other STIs. However, the push to say that monkeypox is not an STI is in danger of being an overcorrection.

Anyone can get monkeypox

First things first: Monkeypox is not strictly an STI/STD like chlamydia, gonorrhea, or HIV/AIDs. Classifying monkeypox as an STI would be disinformation, and — as the WHO statement points out — that sort of framing can lead to dangerous stigma and discrimination toward the demographic where the virus is currently contained. And at the moment, the virus is certainly concentrated: The WHO says that 99% of monkeypox cases in the U.S. are related to male-to-male sexual contact.

Calling monkeypox an STI could lead to a dangerous sense of complacency among people who assume they can’t catch it so long as they don’t have sex with queer men. In reality, monkeypox can spread with close contact of any kind, particularly including contact with an infected person’s lesions. The increasingly prevalent sentiment that monkeypox only affects LGBTQ+ people is both inaccurate and dangerous.

Monkeypox may not be an STI, but it’s spreading like one — for now

So, let me be crystal clear: Monkeypox is not an STI. Now, allow me to be more nuanced: Monkeypox is currently spreading like an STI. The way that a virus is currently being transmitted from person to person should inform how treatment is rolled out, and that the outbreak is successfully contained.

While it’s important to fight the stigma that “only gay men” get monkeypox, the push to say it isn’t an STI is obscuring the fact that the people who need treatment right now are 99% men who have sex with other men. Semantics are important — so is ensuring that the right population is getting primary access to vaccines.

It’s important to remember that a virus often hits a specific community before spreading to the general population. And there is little evidence to suggest that monkeypox will stay confined to gay, bi, and queer men indefinitely. People outside the demographic currently getting hit hardest should not feel complacent; there’s no guarantee that the virus won’t break out to the wider population.

Read here about how to lower your risk of getting monkeypox during sex.

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