UNAIDS warns that stigmatizing language on Monkeypox jeopardises public health

UNAIDS has expressed concern that some public reporting and commentary on Monkeypox has used language and imagery, particularly portrayals of LGBTI and African people, that reinforce homophobic and racist stereotypes and exacerbate stigma. Lessons from the AIDS response show that stigma and blame directed at certain groups of people can rapidly undermine outbreak response.

Since May 13, 2022, an outbreak of Monkeypox has been reported in multiple UN member states where cases are not usually reported. As of May 21, the World Health Organization received reports of 92 laboratory-confirmed cases and 28 suspected cases from 12 Member States not endemic for the disease. A significant portion of the cases have been identified among gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men, with some cases identified through sexual health clinics. Investigations are ongoing.  WHO notes that available evidence suggests that those who are most at risk are those who have had close physical contact with someone with monkeypox, and that risk is not limited to men who have sex with men.

UNAIDS urges media, governments, and communities to respond with a rights-based, evidence-based approach that avoids stigma.

“Stigma and blame undermine trust and capacity to respond effectively during outbreaks like this one,” said Matthew Kavanagh, UNAIDS Deputy Executive Director a.i. “Experience shows that stigmatizing rhetoric can quickly disable evidence-based response by stoking cycles of fear, driving people away from health services, impeding efforts to identify cases, and encouraging ineffective, punitive measures. We appreciate the LGBTI community for having led the way on raising awareness – and we reiterate that this disease can affect anyone.”

The Monkeypox outbreak illustrates that communities will continue to face threats from viruses, and that international coordination and solidarity is essential for public health as viruses can only be overcome globally.

“This outbreak highlights the urgent need for leaders to strengthen pandemic prevention, including building stronger community-led capacity and human rights infrastructure to support effective and non-stigmatizing responses to outbreaks,” noted Dr. Kavanagh. “Stigma hurts everyone. Shared science and social solidarity help everyone.”

UNAIDS urges all media covering Monkeypox to follow the regular updates being issued by WHO.

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