Monkeypox: Toronto health leaders push for increased vaccine awareness, supports

As the number of monkeypox cases continues to gradually rise, health advocates are calling for increased vaccine awareness and supports. Nick Westoll reports.

For the past few months, doctors, scientists and community health professionals and advocates have been working to respond to a gradual increase in the number of monkeypox cases, but calls are ramping up for increased vaccine awareness and better support for those who are diagnosed with the virus.

“Our efforts have been unending … we are feeling, I would say, more optimistic over the last several weeks. I think the rise in cases doesn’t come as a surprise,” Dane Griffiths, the director of the Gay Men’s Sexual Health Alliance, told CityNews.

He and his team have been working in overdrive in an effort to educate the public and those at higher risk in the 2SLGBTQ+ community on monkeypox for weeks now.

“I think there’s a feeling we can address this outbreak and put a stop to it, and I think our community is incredibly motivated to ensure, frankly, no other communities are impacted by [monkeypox],” Griffiths said.

With 326 confirmed monkeypox cases in Ontario to date, Public Health Ontario reported on Tuesday that more than 75 per cent of the cases involved people from Toronto. There have been no deaths reported to have been linked to the virus in Canada, and the typical recovery time is two to four weeks.

In the city and beyond, the main focus for health leaders now is on vaccination.

In a statement to CityNews, Toronto Public Health (TPH) reported more than 11,000 people have been vaccinated with Imvamune — the two-dose vaccine that helps prevent serious complications associated with monkeypox. In the next two weeks, officials said there would be 34 clinics to get a vaccine dose.

CityNews contacted the Ontario Ministry of Health to ask for monkeypox vaccine supplies and the plans for rollout. As of July 26, a spokesperson said in a statement more than 14,000 doses had been administered province-wide.

“Ontario continues to work with the Public Health Agency of Canada on the Imvamune vaccine supply and has sufficient supply for those who require it based on the current epidemiology,” the statement said.

“Consistent with guidance from the National Advisory Council on Immunization and [the Public Health Agency of Canada], Ontario is working toward ensuring that all individuals who meet the current vaccine eligibility criteria receive their first dose.

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“Second doses will soon be available to those who meet the vaccine eligibility criteria and are moderate to severely immunocompromised; this approach is consistent with other jurisdictions across Canada to ensure equitable access based on supply and need.”

“That’s significant, and I think that speaks to the interest in the community to pay attention to this, to take steps to protect our health and the health of folks in our community,” Griffiths said.

He went on to say locally in Toronto, there was a larger spike in interest just before Pride at the end of June and after the World Health Organization (WHO) issued an emergency declaration on Saturday.

However, there were some indications of slowing uptake.

According to the Government of Canada, the vaccine was first developed to prevent smallpox, but officials said a number of observational studies found the shot was around 85 per cent effective in preventing monkeypox. They also noted being vaccinated against smallpox could result in a milder case of monkeypox.

Based on Ontario Ministry of Health guidelines, the vaccine is being offered to people who identify as a man (cisgender and transgender) and those who are gay, bisexual or a part of the men who have sex with men communities.

Unlike COVID-19, officials said it does not spread as quickly or as easily. It also doesn’t spread through casual contact.

They said monkeypox typically is spread from someone infected with the virus to others through prolonged close contact and within range of respiratory droplets (breathing, talking, coughing, sneezing etc.), direct contact with lesions, blistered, rashes or bodily fluids like saliva, or contact with contaminated items such as sheets, towels or other objects and surfaces.

It can enter into someone’s body through skin breaks, the eyes or the mouth. Coming into contact with infected animals is another way it can be transmitted.

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, said in an update on Wednesday more than 70,000 doses have been distributed across Canada, and almost 40 per cent of that supply has gone into arms. Currently, only the first doses are being offered due to rationing.

“Based on global estimates, a vaccine is of limited supply,” she told reporters.

“The virus is still evolving, and this (WHO) declaration makes clear that the situation requires an urgent global response.

“The Public Health Agency of Canada recommends practicing safer sex, having fewer sexual partners, particularly anonymous partners even when they don’t have symptoms, can also reduce your risk of getting infected.”

Dr. Darrell Tan, an infectious diseases physician and clinician-scientist at St. Michael’s Hospital, has been involved in treating patients since cases were confirmed in Ontario. He said the need to take precautions against monkeypox is increased since, in some patients, it’s mild, sometimes being detected during unrelated body screenings.

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

When it comes to the response by governments, Tan said wraparound support for those diagnosed is largely missing. Since people are forced under infection control measures to isolate for multiple weeks, widescale sick leave benefits and access to things like groceries aren’t largely available.

He noted similar types of benefits were available during COVID-19.

“This is a tremendous concern, and my clinical colleagues, public health colleagues, and I have certainly heard it. We have been sounding the alarms ourselves from the very get-go,” Tan said.

“People want to follow public health advice, people don’t want to expose their friends and family to the suffering that they’ve just endured or are enduring, and yet we don’t have the necessary public supports in place to allow to facilitate adherence with public health guidance.

“It is an internally inconsistent set of principles for us to ask people to do something that we know that they cannot do, so it really behooves us to put back into place measures that have been introduced.”

Meanwhile, when it comes to the stigma and discrimination some are facing as a result of being diagnosed with monkeypox, both Griffiths and Tan said they’re hearing reports of this happening.

“Stigma and discrimination are an ever-present threat in this response. We have heard from members of our community who are experiencing m-pox of really frankly just awful treatment online, especially those folks who go public with their experience,” Griffiths said.

Tan called the reports he’s hearing about “devastating.”

“This is a virus that is causing human suffering and some infectious disease for which, fortunately, we have some biomedical tools and some public health strategies to contain. We’re simply trying to raise awareness, to protect each other, to support each other and to care for people,” he said.

“There’s simply no room whatsoever for stigma and discrimination to be getting in the way of that important work. I really say shame on those who advance some of this stigma and discrimination. It has no place in our society.”

Monkeypox resources

Toronto Public Health

Ontario government

Gay Men’s Sexual Health Alliance

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