We must treat monkeypox as a public health emergency to avoid it becoming endemic in the UK
Many say that London is at its most beautiful in the summer. But over the last few weekends there’s been a new spectacle to behold in the city, with snaking queues of gay and bisexual men outside the capital’s sexual health clinics waiting for hours in the blazing sunshine to get vaccinated against a growing health threat – monkeypox.
While the efforts these men are making to protect themselves is clear to see, the government’s response to monkeypox still hasn’t got going. It’s lagging way behind the pace at which monkeypox is spreading. This is despite concerns from sexual health experts Terrence Higgins Trust and British Association for Sexual Health & HIV (BASHH) that without urgent action monkeypox will become endemic in the United Kingdom.
There have been 2,672 cases recorded nationally with around three quarters in London and the overwhelming majority in gay and bisexual men. It’s believed to be spreading via sexual networks and the response from government so far is failing them. That’s why LGBT+ groups from all major Westminster parties have come together to call on the Heath Secretary to urgently step up the national response.
The government has wildly underestimated the scale of vaccination needed to protect those at risk
LGBT+ Labour has joined forces with our counterparts in the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, SNP and Green Party to demand that Steve Barclay gets to grips with his new brief and steps up to the plate on monkeypox. That means treating it as the public health emergency that it is and putting in the money that’s necessary to get on top of this.
Figures from BASHH suggest the government has wildly underestimated the scale of vaccination needed to protect those at risk. They estimate that 250,000 doses of vaccine would ensure that everyone who needs it can have two jabs for maximum protection. So far, the government has procured around half that number and a first dose of vaccine has only reached 15,000 almost three months into the outbreak.
Testing for and vaccinating against monkeypox is putting enormous strain on sexual health clinics, which are struggling to maintain other services while responding to the increasing demand from monkeypox. HIV and STI testing is suffering, as well as contraceptive provision. Clinics are doing a phenomenal job with what they have, but they can’t continue like this without financial support. It is both unacceptable and unsustainable.
What’s clear is that the response lacks proper coordination or grip from those at the top. A monkeypox Tsar could help to solve this – someone to bring health agencies together and drive action forward. A scatter gun approach to public health information must be replaced with proactive messaging that reaches gay and bisexual men and other men who have sex with men.
We know that by utilising apps like Grindr and other social media networks you can reach thousands of people quickly and simply with a targeted campaign. Basic information telling people the symptoms to look out for and where vaccines are available would go a long way through these platforms.
There are clear lessons to be learned from Covid-19 as we face this virus. Not least that no one should have to choose between their physical or financial health. With people even turning to crowd funding to cover their rent while they isolate, it’s vital that there’s a proper system in place to financially support those who need it to stay at home safely.
With the Health Secretary currently missing in action, our community is coming together – as we have had to too often before – to share information and support each other. But 40 years after Terry Higgins’ partner and friends spearheaded the early HIV response, the burden should not fall on LGBT+ people to do this alone. Especially without a commitment to vaccinate everyone at risk who needs it.
Monkeypox won’t wait while the Tories are distracted by choosing Boris Johnson’s replacement. LGBT+ groups from across the political spectrum are united in our call: the government must act now, or we will pay a far greater cost later.
Dame Angela Eagle is the Labour MP for Wallasey.
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