Misinformation during disease outbreaks is a problem. Monkeypox is no exception by campbell small
On July 23rd of 2022, the World Health Organization declared Monkeypox a global health emergency and warned countries of it. Then, on August 4th of 2022, the Biden administration declared Monkeypox a public health emergency in the US. This news may sound an awful lot like the beginnings of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thankfully, experts say it’s not. First appearing in 1958, Monkeypox is a viral disease that spreads through close skin-to-skin contact, touching contaminated materials or respiratory droplets. Monkeypox can cause a variety of symptoms including painful spots that have been compared to blisters or pimples. Luckily, there are already vaccines available to mitigate it.
When COVID-19 emerged in 2020, it was novel, and there was no treatment for it. It is far more contagious than Monkeypox, and it is far more likely to be fatal. However, as it was reported during the height of the COVID pandemic in this newspaper, we live in the era of an infodemic, a term defined by the Panamerican Health Organization in 2020. It refers to the idea that we are living in a time with greater access to general information which may or may not be true. This makes finding accurate information challenging. This problem isn’t one that we can glance over. Especially during disease outbreaks, as there is a correlation between increased anxiety, often caused by health crises, and the sharing of misinformation. In fact, according to the WHO, in the first three months of the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 6000 people were hospitalized because of misinformation related to the virus. This is a problem and, although some may blame this on the internet, it isn’t really new.
Consider the HIV epidemic. It had lots of misinformation. One myth associated with it was the idea that only gay men could contract the disease. This is false. Unfortunately, the trend continues today. The truth is that, while by 1995, according to the British Academy, one in nine gay men had been diagnosed with AIDS, and one in fifteen gay men had died of it, a survey done by the CDC found that heterosexual individuals still get the disease. In 2019, men who have sex with men made up 69% of new HIV diagnoses in the United States, while heterosexual individuals made up 23% of all new HIV cases that year. According to the CDC, part of the reason for this is that anal sex is a behavior that puts individuals at a higher risk for contracting HIV.
A similar scenario is happening with the MonkeyPox outbreak today. As mentioned previously, MonkeyPox can spread via close skin-to-skin contact which can occur during sex. According to the CDC on August 12, 2022, among the current US cases of Monkeypox 99% occurred in men, 94% of whom reported recent male-to-male sexual or close intimate contact. These statistics sadly look an awful lot like the ones collected during the HIV epidemic. It is important to denote that currently, unlike HIV, there isn’t a sexual behavior scientifically proven to increase your likelihood of contracting Monkeypox.
The challenge that public health officials are facing is how to inform individuals in a historically marginalized group that they may be more likely to have a disease without suggesting that the disease is inherently associated with them. There is no such thing as a “gay disease” but there are diseases that have statistically been spread more among men who have sex with men. Although this is a challenge for professionals, individuals must do their part as well. In addition to the infodemic, we live in a media environment that centers around the internet, which doesn’t do nuances well.
People are incentivized to shout information as loudly as they can so that they may be heard among the other billions of people yelling, and it isn’t always the messages that are the most accurate that get heard. Usually, it’s the messages that are the loudest and the ones that appeal to fear and rage. In the case of MonkeyPox, these are taking the form in false claims that link the disease exclusively to gay men, or conspiracy theories that wrongly link the emergence of the disease with the COVID vaccine.
This is why in a health crisis media literacy is essential because in a world with an overflow of information, we must be able to understand that there is a difference between what experts say, and what our peers’ opinions are.
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