Leading gay rights activists see AIDS-like hesitancy against monkeypox

A smallpox vaccine from Danish drug maker Bavarian Nordic, marketed under the name Jynneos in the United States and Imvanex in Europe, has been found to protect against monkeypox.

Despite the World Health Organization (WHO) declaring the monkeypox outbreak a global health emergency, some civil rights leaders have denounced a lack of prevention, a shortage of vaccines, and stigmatization linked to the virus.

Four pioneers of the AIDS activist movement watch in awe and with a sense of nostalgia.

Public health officials around the world were slow to combat the highly infectious AIDS when it first began to emerge in gay men during the late 1970s.

It wasn’t until June 5, 1981, that the United States released the world’s first government report on the disease in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, a bulletin on perplexing disease cases.

No one has died from monkeypox outside the 11 African nations where the infectious disease has become endemic since it was discovered in 1970. However, a substantial proportion of patients infected with monkeypox have been hospitalized for severe pain caused by pimple-like sores that commonly develop.

Early signs of the disease include a high fever, swollen lymph glands and a chickenpox-like rash.

The disease usually heals by itself after two to three weeks, sometimes taking a month.

Some of the similarities between the two viruses speak for themselves.

Like the HIV strain that started the AIDS pandemic in the late 1970s, the current monkeypox outbreak has emerged from sub-Saharan Africa and has been found overwhelmingly in men who have sex with men who live in the world’s metropolises.

While epidemiologists have not reached a complete understanding of how the current outbreak of monkeypox spreads, recent research points to sexual transmission.

Pioneering AIDS activists of the 1980s and ‘90s contend that there are other, consequential yet less obvious parallels playing out in real-time.

“It feels like déjà vu,” said Peter Tatchell, a leading member of the Gay Liberation Front in the United Kingdom. “The lessons from the AIDS crisis and Covid have clearly not been learned.”

“What’s interesting is that many of the scientists and clinicians who were trained during the AIDS epidemic or were there at the beginning, people like Tony Fauci, know this history, but the response to monkeypox has been alarmingly slow and chaotic,” said Gregg Gonsalves, who joined Act Up — the leading group that fought for action to combat AIDS —  in 1990 and is now a professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health.

“As an individual, it’s like, ‘Three strikes you’re out, man.’ HIV, Covid and now monkeypox? How many times can you make the same mistakes over and over again?,” said Gonsalves.

“In the period October 1980-May 1981, 5 young men, all active homosexuals, were treated for biopsy-confirmed Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia at 3 different hospitals in Los Angeles, California,” the report read. “Two of the patients died.”

Three years later, the U.S. government announced the development of an AIDS test, in addition to a vaccine, which never came to fruition. By 1985, an estimated 12,000 Americans had died of the disease.

Similarly, activists argue that the global response to tame monkeypox has been too slow to curb ballooning case numbers — more than 20,500 cases of the current monkeypox outbreak have been reported globally across 77 countries and territories since the start of May, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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