For AIDS pioneers, the monkeypox epidemic evokes déjà vu

As cases of monkeypox increase worldwide, four pioneers of the AIDS activist movement watch with awe and a sense of nostalgia.

Some of the similarities between the two viruses speak for themselves. Like the HIV strain that started the AIDS pandemic in the late 1970s, the current monkeypox epidemic emerged from sub-Saharan Africa and was overwhelmingly found in men who have sex with men who live in the metropolises of the world. And while epidemiologists haven’t reached a complete understanding of how the current monkeypox epidemic spreads, recent research points to sexual transmission.

Four AIDS pioneers of the 1980s and 1990s argue that there are other consequential but less obvious parallels occurring in real time.

People hold up signs representing the number of AIDS victims at a rally in Central Park in New York City on August 8, 1983. File by Allan Tannenbaum / Getty Images

As in the early days of the AIDS crisis, they argue, government messages about the outbreak have been spoiled, gay men have been taken aback, and public health officials have failed to defeat a serious disease afflicting the LGBTQ community.

“It feels like déjà vu,” said gay rights activist Peter Tatchell, who was a prominent member of the UK’s Gay Liberation Front. “The lessons of the AIDS crisis and Covid have not been clearly learned”.

Public health officials around the world were slow to fight AIDS when it began to emerge in men who have sex with men in the late 1970s. It was not until June 5, 1981 that the United States published the world’s first government report on infectious disease in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, a government bulletin on baffling disease cases.

“From October 1980 to May 1981, 5 young men, all active homosexuals, were treated for biopsy-confirmed Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia at 3 different hospitals in Los Angeles, California,” the report reads. “Two of the patients died.”

Three years later, the US government announced the development of an AIDS test, as well as a vaccine, which was never made. By 1985, about 12,000 Americans had died from the disease.

Likewise, activists argue that the global response to domesticated monkeypox has been too slow to curb the increasing number of cases: more than 20,500 cases of the current monkeypox epidemic have been reported globally in 77 countries. and territories since early May, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

No one has died of monkeypox outside of the 11 African nations where the infectious disease has become endemic since it was discovered in 1970. However, a substantial percentage of monkeypox-infected patients have been hospitalized for severe pain. caused by pimple-like sores that commonly develop.

Since the first cases were discovered in May, the United States has distributed nearly 200,000 Jynneos vaccines – a two-dose vaccine to prevent smallpox and monkeypox – to the most at-risk population, which is well below its own. about 3.8 million gay men. In France, only about 6,000 people have been vaccinated in more than 100 vaccination centers in recent weeks, French Minister of Social Affairs and Health François Braun said Monday. And in the UK, health officials ordered another 100,000 doses of the vaccine last week to keep up with growing demand.

On Saturday, the World Health Organization declared monkeypox a public health emergency of international concern, a designation reserved for the most threatening global disease outbreaks, after initially giving up doing it last month. More than two months after the first U.S. case of monkeypox was detected in mid-May, New York public health officials released a statement Thursday that the infectious disease posed an imminent threat to public health and officials. San Francisco have declared a state of emergency.

“The interesting thing is that many scientists and clinicians who were trained during the AIDS epidemic or who were there at the beginning, people like Tony Fauci, know this story, but the response to monkeypox has been alarmingly slow and chaotic. “said Gregg Gonsalves, who joined Act Up, the leading group that fought for action against AIDS, in 1990 and is now a professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health. “As an individual, it’s like, ‘Three strikes you’re out, man.’ HIV, Covid and now monkeypox? How many times can you repeat the same mistakes over and over again? ”

Representatives from the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which Dr. Anthony Fauci has headed since 1984, and officials from the White House, where Fauci is the president’s chief medical adviser, did not immediately respond to NBC News requests for comment. .

Pictures of men waiting in long lines out of clinics around the world to get vaccinated, technician matters with online vaccine portals and reports accusing the U.S. government of developing a “wait and see” response to the outbreak – reportedly calling for shipments of vaccines only when cases have increased in the past few weeks – have piled up in the activists’ fears that the public health response to monkeypox is shaping up to be a repetition of its flawed strategy to fight AIDS.

People lined up outside the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene clinic on June 23, 2022 in New York, as New York makes vaccines available to residents possibly exposed to monkeypox.
People lined up outside a Department of Health and Mental Hygiene clinic on June 23 in New York.Tayfun Coskun / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Although the virus began to spread in May, the United States did not order multiple doses of the monkeypox vaccine to add to supplies until June. Furthermore, regulators had not finished inspecting a key plant in Denmark for the production of monkeypox vaccines until July, leaving 1.1 million ready-for-distribution doses blocked in Europe.

“Just like during the AIDS pandemic, some governments seem to care very little as long as monkeypox only affects men who have sex with men,” said Tatchell, who was turned away from a London hospital that had run out of food. monkeypox vaccine last Sunday. “What other explanation can there be? Governments should have launched emergency vaccination programs for gay and bisexual men two or three weeks ago ”.

Some veteran AIDS activists also argue that, as during the AIDS crisis, the messages to combat monkeypox were not personalized enough to reach the LGBTQ community.

Ron Goldberg, one of the first AIDS activists who joined Act Up in 1987, refers to the “America Responds to AIDS” public service announcement campaign launched by the government at the height of the crisis in the late 1980s. . Many of the commercials featured heterosexual couples and featured messages including “AIDS is everyone’s problem”.

“At the time, they were so afraid to talk about gay sex, or something, that they had to babble the message when they were trying to provide some information,” Goldberg said. “If it’s happening within a certain population, you need to target your messages to that certain population.”

Activists widely applauded the efforts of public health officials to not link monkeypox directly to the LGBTQ community – as many believe they have done with AIDS – and thereby create stigma. However, some argue that the repeated statements by public health officials that “anyone can get monkeypox” mirrors the AIDS message that “anyone can get the AIDS virus” and also bypasses efforts to alert the public. demographic most at risk.

Research overwhelmingly suggests that the current monkeypox epidemic is overwhelmingly driven by men having sex with men. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine published last week found that of the 528 monkeypox cases analyzed, 98 percent were found in men identified as gay or bisexual. Another recent report from the British Health Security Agency found that of the 699 monkeypox cases for which information was available, 97% involved gay, bisexual or other men who have sex with men.

“The numbers are there,” said Didier Lastrade, who founded the first French chapter of Act Up in 1989. “We shouldn’t avoid it. … We are great people, we are adults, we can bear it. The stigmatization is happening in both cases. “

On Thursday, the WHO recommended gay and bisexual men limit the number of sexual partners to protect themselves from monkeypox and contain its spread.

But after two years of pandemic isolation and big summer events, like last weekend’s annual Pines Party on Fire Island, some activists fear it will be hard to get gay and bisexual men to cut down on their sexual behaviors.

“You want to be able to reach people in their 20s and 30s and say, ‘Look, this isn’t a joke. You have all seen the photos. You all have friends who have had monkeypox. You don’t want it, ‘”Gonsalves said.

More broadly, Lastrade said, the advent of pre-exposure prophylaxis, the HIV prevention pill (also known as PrEP), along with scientific evidence over the past decade that HIV treatment can prevent transmission , they put gay and bisexual men to sleep behind the wheel when it comes to their sexual health.

“The new generation has completely forgotten the history of AIDS. I keep writing books on AIDS but nobody reads them, ”Lastrade said. “When that happens, they forget their reflexes we had before because it was a matter of life or death.”

Regardless of the message, with a lackluster global vaccine launch, activists fear the virus will become an infectious disease the LGBTQ community must live with permanently, as it did with AIDS decades ago.

“A lot of people are saying that we have passed the containment point, that we have already missed our chance,” Gonsalves said. “If true, it is incredibly serious because this disease does not necessarily kill, but the enormous suffering and expense of it all will put a burden on many, many people, many, many health systems and many, many communities that have already been infected. “.

To follow NBC out On Twitter, Facebook & Instagram.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.