As Manitoba gay, bisexual men become eligible for monkeypox vaccine, some worry about persecution

This week, some Manitoba men are eligible to receive the monkeypox immunization, but some advocates are worried about potential stigma attached to the illness, especially for members of the LGBTQ+ community.

On Friday, Manitoba Health announced certain men who have sex with men will be able to get the vaccine if they meet one other listed criteria — including a recent diagnosis of a sexually transmitted infection, more than two sexual partners in the last 21 days, if they are a sex worker, if they have had anonymous sex recently or are planning to.

That criteria has some members of the LGBTQ+ community and their allies concerned about further persecution.

Winnipeg-based drag performer Thomas Hanan says he’s worried about what could happen to fellow queer men in light of monkeypox being named a global emergency.

“If you’re someone who already is holding prejudice for our community, it’s easy to turn something like this into the LGBT community being the reason why this is happening. And really, it doesn’t only affect queer people…. It’s not just gay people who have sexual interactions,” he said in an interview on Monday.

Thomas Hanan identifies as a queer man. He worries that the province opening up monkeypox to certain men who have sex with men might open them up to stigmatization. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

The head of a Winnipeg clinic that pushed for monkeypox vaccines to be doled out to men who have sex with men says it’s important for people in the community to take precautions.

“While we worry about the stigmatization of messaging, we also want to not get ourselves into a situation where we’re so worried about upsetting a specific community that we don’t tell them what their risk is,” said Mike Payne, the executive director of Nine Circles Health Centre, which specializes in caring for and treating people with sexually transmitted infections.

“It can sit uncomfortably with people, for sure, because you know there’s worry that people will equate being gay with high-risk behaviours and that’s of course not true.”

No cases of monkeypox have been reported in Manitoba to date, but other provinces and territories have reported 957 cases as of Friday, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Public health messaging

Public health officials must balance their messaging with the important role of conveying factual information, says a University of Manitoba assistant professor in community health sciences and social work.

Rusty Souleymanov, whose research focuses on LGBTQ+ health as well as sexually transmitted infections, says government officials risk repeating the mistakes of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s.

“Fixating on how monkeypox impacts different populations can be unproductive and sometimes unhelpful on one end. It really tends to make people who are disproportionately impacted feel like this is the end … and people might be less likely to seek help because of that stigma,” he said.

“On the other end, it makes those who maybe have been less impacted inaccurately believe that they are less vulnerable. So that’s a really big problem.”

Rusty Souleymanov is an assistant professor in the faculty of social work at the University of Manitoba who researches LGBTQ+ issues. (Submitted by Rusty Souleymanov)

Payne echoes that concern. 

When it comes to HIV and AIDS, men who have sex with men are represented highly across Canada, but not in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, where intravenous drug use is the biggest indicator of HIV and AIDS, he said.

Payne worries people will focus on the labels of gay, bisexual and men who have sex with men, rather than the lifestyles that may leave people vulnerable to monkeypox.

“Some of those risk factors are not exclusive to the GBMSM [gay, bisexual, men who have sex with men] population, and those individuals probably should be mindful and paying attention to opportunities for a monkeypox vaccine, even if they don’t describe themselves as GBMSM,” he said.

“The more we can kind of communicate that, that folks would sure really pay attention to the behavioural descriptions, the better.” 

As of Monday afternoon, all available monkeypox vaccine appointments have been booked.

A spokesperson from the province says more information about future appointments will come as soon as possible.

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