Monkeypox on Vancouver Island: Island Health aiming to avoid stigma

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Island Health’s vaccination campaign against monkeypox is seeing strong interest – with two days of appointments already full before the program started. The health authority says people should continue checking back as new spots open over the coming weeks.


There have been two cases of the virus identified on Vancouver Island and 32 province-wide, amid a global outbreak.


“One of our tools we have to really decrease the spread and decrease harm that we’re seeing from the virus is to provide vaccination to those at the highest risk of being infected,” said Island Health medical health officer Dr. Mike Benusic.


While the virus can affect anyone, Island Health says current global epidemiology shows monkeypox is spreading almost exclusively between people who identify as gay, bisexual, or as other men who have sex with men.


Transmission occurs predominantly through close, prolonged physical contact, which is what formed the main basis of criteria for vaccine eligibility for Island Health.


To qualify for a shot, you must also be 18 of age or older and meet at least one more criteria based on your sexual health or activity.


  • Have received a diagnosis of a bacterial STI in the past 2 months

  • Have had two or more sexual partners in the past 21 days

  • Have attended venues or other locations for sexual contact within the past 21 days

  • Have had anonymous or casual sex in the past 21 days and engaging in sex work either as a worker or a client.

  • Anyone who is planning to engage in any of the listed activity is also eligible


AVOIDING STIGMA


“We want to be very careful that we’re approaching a campaign that’s targeting vaccine to those who identify as gay, bisexual or other men who have sex with men in a way that’s honest, open, transparent – but also doesn’t stigmatize,” said Benusic.


Jonathan Degenhardt, the manager of programs and counselling for Peers Victoria Resources Society, grew up in the 90’s during the height of the AIDS crisis. He says he has painful memories of the way it was portrayed as a “gay disease.”


“When I was growing up, media told us that we could get AIDS from sharing drinking glasses to sitting on a toilet seat in a public restroom,” he said.


“I had an uncle who was diagnosed with HIV and because of the stigma perpetuated by the media we lost contact with him.”


Decades later, Degenhardt says it’s important to note it’s not just queer men who participate in activities that could put them at risk for contracting monkeypox.


“Working at Peers Victoria Resources Society, we support sex workers of all genders who are at as much or even higher risk than those who qualify for vaccination,” he said.


Degenhardt travelled to Vancouver for a monkeypox vaccine and hopes to see the eligibility requirements expand to include more people.

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