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Sex, 'casual contact' and pimples: A guide to separating monkeypox facts from fiction

Grace Toohey, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES — With local, state and national officials declaring emergencies over the monkeypox outbreak and a scramble for vaccines spurring long lines — and waits — in many U.S. cities, the latest updates about the rare virus can seem overwhelming and, well, confusing.

But experts say it's important to remember that monkeypox is a known disease that is rarely deadly (unlike the coronavirus) and already has an approved vaccine and treatment.

That's not to say there aren't real concerns about the outbreak, including a vaccine shortage, rapidly rising infections and the fact that one community — men who have sex with men — remains most at-risk.

The first step in addressing this virus is education, experts say, so people can better understand their risks and know how the disease spreads and how to prevent transmission.

Can only gay or bisexual men get monkeypox?

No. While the outbreak is spreading primarily among gay and bisexual men, as well as some transgender and nonbinary people, anyone — regardless of gender or sexual orientation — can become infected.


"No single individual or community is to blame for the spread of any virus," said Dr. Tomás Aragón, California's public health director. "Monkeypox can affect anyone, and it spreads by skin-to-skin contact, as well as from sharing items like clothing, bedding and towels."

Dr. Stuart Burstin, the interim national director of infectious diseases for the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, said it was "by chance" that monkeypox first infected men who have sex with men. The virus has continued to spread in that group, as transmission can easily occur during sexual encounters.

Of the more than 400 confirmed and suspected monkeypox cases in Los Angeles County, 99% have been in men, about 90% of whom identified as LGBTQ, according to data from the Department of Public Health. Similar demographics from state and national health officials have found the same trend, and for that reason, gay and bisexual men, as well as some other queer people, remain most at risk.

"The risk to the general public is low, but there is a chance — and I would predict — this virus does make some inroads into the general public," Burstin said. In very rare instances it already has: At least five children in the U.S. and one pregnant woman have been infected, according to health officials.


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