Monkeypox: what is it and why are queer men in some areas being told to ‘stay vigilant’?

Monkeypox (images: (UK Health Security Agency)

Monkeypox has been detected across multiple countries, with 20 cases now confirmed in the UK and officials cautioning queer men to be extra vigilant.


There has been a lot of talk about monkeypox lately and, with it, a lot of misinformation being passed around.

Folks are, understandably after COVID, being hypervigilant about the presence of the virus, which officials say poses low risk.

Monkeypox is not a sexually transmitted infection, but it can be passed on through very close contact, which would typically, obviously, occur during sex.


A small number of the 20 people confirmed to have contracted the virus in the UK have identified as gay or bisexual so, given the virus is transmitted through close contact like sex, experts are simply advising queer men to be watchful at this time.


Health Secretary Sajid Javid said today (May 20) that the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) had confirmed 11 more cases of monkeypox in the UK, adding to the nine previously reported, making total of 20 with the majority being in London.

“UKHSA have confirmed 11 new cases of Monkeypox in the UK. This morning I updated G7 health ministers on what we know so far”, Javid said.

“Most cases are mild, and I can confirm we have procured further doses of vaccines that are effective against monkeypox.”

Monkeypox was first detected in humans in the Congo in 1970, is extremely rare outside Central and West Africa, but some cases have been found recently in Europe, US, Canada and Australia. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has noted that the recent outbreaks are unusual because they are occurring in countries where the virus is not endemic.


The WHO has confirmed about 80 cases of monkeypox with recent outbreaks reported in 11 countries, according to a statement Friday from the global health agency.


It’s usually a mild illness that settles on its own, but it can sometimes become more serious, which explains officials being hypervigilant this time around given recent history with COVID.


The UK Government has some stocks of the smallpox vaccine, which can be effective against monkeypox as the viruses are quite similar.


What is monkeypox?

Monkeypox is usually a mild self-limiting infection, transmitted through very close contact with someone who has the virus. Most people recover within a few weeks and the strain identified in the UK has a low mortality rate with most people who contact it are expected to make a full recovery.


The infection can be passed on through close contact or contact with clothing or linens used by a person who has monkeypox, however, the virus does not usually spread easily between people and  and officials say the risk to the UK population remains low.


Monkeypox is not classed as a sexually transmitted infection, but because it can be passed through close physical contact, it can occur during sex.


The advice issued by UKHSA is that ‘anyone with unusual rashes or lesions on any part of their body, especially their genitalia, should contact NHS 111 or call a sexual health service if they have concerns.’


So why gay and bisexual men?

A proportion of early cases detected have been in gay and bisexual men and so UKHSA is urging the community in particular to be alert. However, anyone with monkeypox can pass it on, regardless of sexual orientation.


Earlier this week, UK officials had confirmed that four of the men to have contracted monkeypox in London were queer and that cases among gay and bisexual men have also been seen in Portugal.


Symptoms to lookout for.

According to UKHSA and Dean Street Health, symptoms of monkeypox begin 5-21 days (average 6-16 days) after being exposed to the virus. The first signs can include high fever, chills, exhaustion, muscle and joint aches, enlarged lymph glands and a severe headache.

One to 5 days later a rash then usually appears, often starting on either the genitals or face before progressing to other areas on the body.

The rash changes and goes through different stages before finally forming a scab which later falls off.


Health officials have been keen to impress that, whilst vigilance is encouraged, monkeypox is usually mild and most people will recover within a few weeks without any treatment.

In cases where infected people become severely unwell they need to be admitted to hospital.


According to Dean Street Health, the strain found in the UK is the ‘West African clade’, symptoms of which are typically less severe and the risk of death from infection is around 1%, rather than the 10% reported by some news outlets.


Monkeypox stages


Dr Susan Hopkins, Chief Medical Adviser, UKHSA, said:

“We anticipated that further cases would be detected through our active case finding with NHS services and heightened vigilance among healthcare professionals. We expect this increase to continue in the coming days and for more cases to be identified in the wider community. Alongside this we are receiving reports of further cases being identified in other countries globally. “


“We continue to rapidly investigate the source of these infections and raise awareness among healthcare professionals. We are contacting any identified close contacts of the cases to provide health information and advice.”


“Because the virus spreads through close contact, we are urging everyone to be aware of any unusual rashes or lesions and to contact NHS 111 or a sexual health service if they have any concerns. “

“Please contact clinics ahead of your visit and avoid close contact with others until you have been seen by a clinician.”

“A notable proportion of recent cases in the UK and Europe have been found in gay and bisexual men so we are particularly encouraging them to be alert to the symptoms and seek help if concerned.”