What is monkeypox?
Monkeypox is an infectious viral disease that until recently was very rare in the UK. However, an outbreak is now escalating, with 2,367 cases confirmed across the country, of which 1,699 are in London. Anyone can contract monkeypox, but at present it’s spreading almost exclusively among MSM (men who have sex with men).
‘The latest data shows that around 98 percent of confirmed monkeypox cases continue to be in gay and bisexual men in big cities and particularly in London,’ says Greg Owen of sexual health charity Terrence Higgins Trust. ‘That’s why it’s especially important for this group to be aware of the signs and symptoms, and to get tested if they have any concerns by calling ahead to their local sexual health clinic and making arrangements.’
With this in mind, here’s everything you need to know.
What are the symptoms of monkeypox?
According to the NHS, if you’re infected with monkeypox, it normally takes between five and 21 days for the symptoms to show. The initial symptoms include a high temperature, headache, muscle aches, backache, swollen glands, shivering/chills and exhaustion. Within five days of these initial symptoms, a rash usually appears, often beginning on the face before spreading to other parts of the body. Lesions can appear on the genitals and anus.
The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) updated its list of monkeypox symptoms this week (July 26) to emphasise that this rash may not be extensive, at least to begin with. Dr. Meera Chand said: ‘It is important to recognise that just one or two genital or anal lesions, or lesions in the mouth, can be signs of monkeypox, especially if you have had a new sexual partner.’
How is monkeypox transmitted?
The infection can be passed on through close physical contact with someone who has monkeypox blisters or scabs. This includes sexual contact, but also kissing, cuddling and holding hands. It can also be spread by touching clothes, bedding or towels used by someone who has the rash.
Ian Howley of health and wellbeing charity LGBT Hero points out that ‘though the current outbreak is being linked to sexual activity by direct contact though sex’, Monkeypox is ‘not considered to be a sexually transmitted infection’. He says the best way to avoid contracting it is to ‘get yourself vaccinated and limit body-to-body contact’.
However, Howley also urges MSM to take a measured approach to limiting close physical contact. ‘We must be careful not to go straight into telling people not to have sex or limit their partners,’ he says. ‘By doing that it shows we have learned nothing from previous health issues surrounding MSM. Gay men already have a ton of internal and external shame when it comes to sex. In the last few years with the rollout of [HIV prevention drug] PrEP, it’s helped to lift some of this shame. The last thing we need is for that to return due to this Monkeypox outbreak.’
What should you do if you think you have monkeypox?
First of all, don’t panic: there have been no deaths from monkeypox in the UK. or most people, symptoms are mild and clear up within a few weeks, though hospitalisation may be necessary in some cases. Stay at home to avoid passing it on to others, and call 111 or your local sexual health service for advice.
Who is eligible for a monkeypox vaccine?
The UKHSA is recommending that the vaccine is offered to gay, bisexual and other MSM who are at the ‘highest risk of exposure’. If you have multiple sexual partners, participate in group sex or attend ‘sex on premises’ venues like gay saunas, you’re deemed ‘at high risk’ and should definitely get vaxxed. You may be invited in by your local sexual health service, but if you haven’t received a text yet, you can go ahead and book one of your own accord.
At present, those at high risk are being offered a single dose of the vaccine. However, the UKHSA says that ‘if the outbreak continues, a second dose may be advised later by your doctor to those at ongoing risk’.
Sexual health charities are now lobbying for the vaccination effort to be expanded so that other MSM are also eligible. Terrence Higgins Trust’s Greg Owen says: ‘The outbreak is continuing to grow and many people are scared. We need to see an end to the country’s lacklustre monkeypox response and for the health of gay and bisexual men to be prioritised with a supercharged vaccination programme and clear communication about how to access it.’
Which London clinics are currently offering vaccines?
NHS England said on July 22 that ‘more than 18 clinics’ in London are offering vaccinations, but finding them takes a bit of detective work. LGBT Hero’s Ian Howley recommends keeping an eye on Twitter because, so far, it’s been ‘a great resource’ for finding out where vaccinations are taking place at short notice. Twitter user @joeyknock has been especially helpful, as has the @TeamPrepster account.
We know for certain that Guy’s Hospital (right next to London Bridge station) is holding walk-in clinics over the next two weekends. These take place from 11.30am to 6pm on July 30-31, and from 9.30am to 5.30pm on August 6-7. Further information is available here. Be aware, though, that some people who attended last weekend’s Guy’s walk-in queued for more than three hours before getting jabbed.
The John Hunter Clinic at Chelsea & Westminster Hospital (within walking distance of Gloucester Road and West Brompton tubes) is taking appointments for vaccinations on coming Wednesdays. Call 020 3315 4040 and prepare to be patient on the phone. Clifden Centre (near Homerton Overground) has also been taking phone bookings on 020 7683 4103, but again, it might take a while to get through.
According to social media reports, 10 Hammersmith Broadway (near Hammersmith tube) has also been taking phone bookings this week. Call 020 3315 1010 and be persistent because it may take 10-15 tries to get through.
We’ve also heard that Falcon Road SHSWL (right behind Clapham Junction station) has been offering Monkeypox vaccines to some MSM attending check-ups there.
What should you do if you’re feeling anxious about monkeypox?
First of all, take comfort in the fact this is a perfectly normal response. Monkeypox is a highly visible disease which only makes it more frightening. If you’re feeling anxious about the outbreak, try to speak to friends and family, or call Switchboard LGBT on 0300 330 0630. ‘Getting vaccinated will help in decreasing your anxiety, so please get it when you can,’ says LGBT Hero’s Ian Howley. ‘In the meantime, look out for yourself and others who might be feeling the same way. We will all get through this outbreak together.’