EU’s slow vaccine rollout leaves queer men exposed to risks of Monkeypox

While the European Commission has confirmed that it has purchased 100,000 vaccine doses to help prevent the transmission of Monkeypox, delivery and distribution of the vaccine remains painstakingly slow. The latest available update from the European Commission indicates that 5,000 vaccine doses have been received and that these have been allocated to Spain – where Monkeypox infections are comparatively high and at least two people have died from the infection – with the balance of vaccine doses expected to be received by the EC in the coming “weeks and months”.

While not much can be done if the vaccines are not yet available, it’s frustrating to see the vaccine roll-out at different stages around the world. It’s hard not to feel that gay men in Europe are being somewhat left behind, leaving us at risk of exposure to Monkeypox while men in other parts of the world seem to be able to access the vaccine. This perception is heightened as infection rates continue to rise and we see – primarily through social media – how devastating a Monkeypox infection can be.

In Belgium, it seems that any available vaccine doses are being reserved for health workers who may be at risk, and also those known to have had extensive contact with someone confirmed to have been infected.

We can compare that to cities such as Toronto in Canada, where the vaccine roll-out appears to have been much more proactive and widely available to men who have sex with men. Even in London – where the initial response to the outbreak seemed relatively chaotic – walk-in vaccination clinics have been established and appointments for vaccines can now be booked for men who self-identify as being at risk.

We need to ensure that we’re avoid what seems to be happening in the US, where a lack of national direction has seen cities such as New York and San Francisco declaring a health emergency as infections continue to rise and vaccines remain scarce.

What do we know about Monkeypox?

Considered endemic in five countries in Africa, Monkeypox is a virus that is now being detected in a number of countries around the world.

Cases have been detected in Belgium.

Monkeypox is not an STI but what’s interesting is that transmission seems to be happening during sexual contact, and the cases identified so far seem to be mainly in men who have sex with men.

As yet, we don’t have any definitive insights as to why Monkeypox has suddenly emerged and spreading via community transmission. Initial research indicates that the current strain of the virus has been present in the UK for a number of years.

“This may be a virus that’s been circulating undetected for quite a while…” said Professor Marc Van Ranst, a virologist at the University of Leuven in Belgium. “They all have a common ancestor and that common ancestor probably dates back to 2019, though it’s too early to date with any kind of accuracy. We know that chronic infection is not a plausible scenario, and that means there has been a chain of transmission events that apparently went unnoticed.”

People who have tested positive for the virus and their close contacts are being told to isolate at home for 21 days.

What is Monkeypox?

The name “monkeypox” comes from the first documented cases of the illness, in 1958, when two outbreaks occurred in colonies of monkeys kept for research.

But monkeys aren’t major carriers. Instead, the virus is generally spread by squirrels, pouched rats, dormice or another rodent.

How do you catch Monkeypox?

Primarily, from an animal bite, scratch or contact with the animal’s bodily fluid. Then the virus can spread to other people through coughing and sneezing or contact with pus from the lesions.

The lesions from monkeypox are similar to those from a smallpox infection.

It’s previously been thought that transmission of Monkeypox between people was a very low risk.

But, now it is transmitting between people, which is something that health experts are keeping a close eye on.

Experts are speculating that the end of vaccination programs against Smallpox has left us vulnerable to a Monkeypox outbreak.

How dangerous is Monkeypox?

Monkeypox can be a nasty illness – it causes fever, body aches, enlarged lymph nodes and, eventually, painful, fluid-filled blisters on the face, hands and feet. One version of monkeypox is quite deadly and kills up to 10% of people infected. The version currently being detected from this cluster is milder. Its fatality rate is less than 1%. A case generally resolves in two to four weeks.

What should I do if I think I might have been exposed to Monkeypox?

If you notice any unusual rashes or lesions, and you think you might have been exposed to the virus through sexual contact, then contact your local sexual health service for advice.