Toronto health leaders working to stop monkeypox misconceptions, LGBTQ2S+ community stigma

Amid reports several monkeypox cases involve men who have sex with men, health leaders in Toronto are working to address misconceptions about the virus and potential stigma of LGBTQ2S+ community members. Nick Westoll reports.

With at least one confirmed monkeypox case in Toronto, efforts are ramping up to address any early misconceptions about the virus and reduce potential stigma.

“I think what we’re really hearing really spans from curiosity, plenty of questions,” Dane Griffiths, the director of the Gay Men’s Sexual Health Alliance, said when asked about how members of the LGBTQ2S+ community say they’re feeling.

He is among those on the frontlines working on getting factual information about monkeypox as it’s being learned out in the community.

“We’re really just saying that this is something to pay attention to. There’s certainly a lot that we know about monkeypox, but there are plenty of outstanding questions with regards to the current dynamics of transmission within our community,” Griffiths said.

The need to get out as much accurate information as possible is escalating amid reports several of the confirmed and suspected monkeypox cases involve men who have sex with men, something that has fueled intolerance before.

“I think our histories as gay men and queer people, of course, lived and living through the HIV and AIDS epidemic, have plenty of experience with stigma, with discrimination, with connecting our sex or our sexual health with notions of danger and of risk broader public,” Griffiths said.

“I think that sensitivity is to be expected. It goes without saying as many health officials even here in Ontario will say, illnesses, viruses and diseases like monkeypox don’t have a sexual orientation.

Those who are a part of, and work with, the LGBTQ2S+ community said we’re hearing about this connection now likely because of a commitment to sexual health testing and assessments.

“There are folks in our community who are seeking out testing, getting assessed, that continues I think a long history of health-seeking behaviour by gay and bisexual men to engage with public health and with our sexual health clinics and we certainly want to see that continue,” Griffiths added.

“The folks who are presenting at the sexual health clinics as was the case in Montreal just happened to be gay and bisexual men. There is nothing to suggest that monkeypox won’t impact other populations and other communities, that just remains to be seen.”

RELATED: 7 cases of monkeypox under investigation in Toronto, confirmed cases remain at 1

It’s a sentiment Dr. Darrell Tan, an infectious diseases physician and clinician-scientist at St. Michael’s Hospital, said he agrees with.

“Sexual minority communities… have a history of resilience, of self-reliance, of looking out for each other, of creativity in the face of adversity that I think we can really lean on in a very uncertain time like we find ourselves right now with monkeypox,” he told CityNews.

Tan recently met with LGBTQ2S+ community organizations to address questions, but said he and other medical professionals are trying to quickly learn more about.

“As a scientist and as a physician, I feel it really, really acutely just how much we don’t know. We know some things, but there’s an awful lot that we still don’t know,” he said.

“It’s been literally since the beginning of this month, really just a couple of weeks, since reports anywhere in these non-endemic countries have even come out recognizing this was happening.”

Tan said monkeypox is a zoonotic virus and is traditionally something transmitted to humans accidentally. He noted it’s endemic in several central and western African countries and is rarely seen in regions farther away.

Things like the sequence and severity of symptoms, the typical length of illness and lasting effects are among the topics they’re still trying to understand. Tan said the traditional record course of the skin lesions resolving can be over a period of two to four weeks. But Tan added there are things that are known.

“It’s definitely true to say that most people who get it survive,” he said.

Tan said there’s no go-to drug yet, but some antivirals can provide support. He said the extent of the help provided hasn’t been rigorously tested yet. He also said the best methods for testing for monkeypox itself is something that’s still be settled on by laboratories and scientists.

Also, while transmission of the virus is still trying to be better understood, monkeypox is not deemed a sexually transmitted infection.

It’s believed it can be shared through direct contact with someone who has the virus, such as by coming into contact with a lesion or being exposed to contaminated objects. Respiratory droplets during lengthier contact with someone are also a potential means of transmission, but Tan said that’s not typically the most efficient way. He said it can also be transmitted in pregnancy.

RELATED: How members of Toronto’s LGBTQ2S+ community are facing additional barriers finding family doctors

“We need to keep an open mind it’s early days,” he urged, saying there’s “definitely” no need to panic right now.

“Nobody deserves to have a health issue or health problem. Health problems arise, that’s biology, and when they do arise, fortunately we have learned a lot about biology. We can use science, we can harness research, we can provide education to folks to overcome it.”

When it comes to potential stigma, Tan said ascertainment bias is always a risk and even in his own profession he keeps working to educate other medical professionals.

“You find more and you assume that’s what links them all, but maybe that’s where folks chose to look?” he said, going on to praise the queer community for moving to take control when there health issues.

“[Members are] saying, ‘You know what? Here’s some positive messages we want to promote within our own communities and they’re good messages actually for everybody to hear: Look after yourself, go get tested, learn about the health issues that affect all of us and look out for each other, talk about safer sex, talk about health promotion with people you meet that you might be attracted to.”

Meanwhile, as we all learn in real-time about monkeypox and its evolution, Griffiths shared an important message.

“Notions of blame, of stigma, of discrimination are never acceptable. It doesn’t matter what the illness is and who it affects,” he said.

“Also, reach out and see how your friends and family are doing if they are part of our community and are being impacted.”

Community monkeypox information resources in Toronto

Gay Men’s Sexual Health Alliance

Toronto Public Health statement

Public Health Agency of Canada statement

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