Mpox Public Health Emergency Declared Over

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday February 2, 2023

Mpox Public Health Emergency Declared Over
  (Source:Getty Images)

The public health emergency around mpox — a highly contagious affliction similar to chickenpox — has been declared over, but its effects may be felt for some time to come.

The official declaration was not unexpected. "The Biden administration announced in December that it was not expecting to renew the public health emergency (PHE) for mpox, previously referred to as monkeypox, that was first declared in August 2022," political news outlet The Hill reported. "The PHE was renewed once in November."

CNN noted that although the disease is endemic to Africa, and the global outbreak began in Europe last year, it was the United States that saw the greatest number of cases, with "an August peak of about 450 cases a day" and diagnoses of the illness that exceeded 30,000 in number.

The disease is not typically life-threatening; it shows up as unsightly pustules on affected areas of the skin and can be quite painful, but most cases resolve in a few weeks without complications. Still, out of the 30,000+ people diagnosed with mpox in the U.S., a reported 23 people died.

That highly rare lethality means that mpox was much, much less lethal than COVID, but, like COVID, the outbreak came to carry political weight.

"When mpox went global in 2022, doctors had too few doses of a new and unproven vaccine, an untested treatment, a dearth of diagnostic testing and a difficult line to walk in their messaging, which needed to be geared to an at-risk population that has been stigmatized and ignored in public health crises before," CNN recalled.

Specifically, the Associated Press recalled, Western cases of mpox were seen "mostly among men who have sex with men." The global outbreak was thought to have gained traction at two raves in Europe, one in Belgium and one in Spain, while in the U.S. the International Mr. Leather Conference in Chicago was thought to have acted as a superspreader event.

"But even with so much learned, there are lingering mysteries too — like where this virus comes from and why it suddenly began to spread from the Central and West African countries where it's usually found to more than 100 other nations," CNN said.

Throughout the summer of 2022, experts worried that mpox might become "entrenched" as an STD in the U.S. and other Western countries and battled a perception that mpox is a "gay disease" despite the fact that casual skin-to-skin contact such as a hug or a handshake — or even sharing linens — could communicate the disease from one person to another, regardless of their sexual orientation.

Other forms of bigotry became enmeshed with the spread of the ailment. Originally known as "monkeypox," the contagious condition was renamed late last year as "mpox" because health authorities worried that the original name of the disease could carry racist connotations.

But the way the disease has fallen off in the West suggests that the hard lessons of the AIDS epidemic, as well as the COVID pandemic, have made a difference in the speed with which the crisis has seemingly subsided.

The Biden administration undertook a swift, proactive response to the emergency, as did state and local pubic health officials.

"Unlike the COVID-19 pandemic, treatments believed to be effective against mpox were already available at the beginning of the outbreak and were readily deployed to high-risk populations, namely men who have sex with men," The Hill relayed.

Moreover, despite a shortage of the vaccine, "health experts noted that the LGBTQ community was primed for handling viral outbreaks due to the HIV crisis," The Hill added. "Many gay and bisexual men were knowledgeable about mitigating the spread of viral diseases."

However, the disease lingers in Africa, and cases are "still rising in some South American countries," CNN noted. HRC President Kelley Robinson took note that while the outbreak has been largely overcome in the U.S., the affliction has not been eradicated.

"Make no mistake, Mpox is still with us," Robinson said in a statement, "and much the same with other health issues, it disproportionately impacts Black and Brown LGBTQ+ community members."

A coalition of health advocate organizations reminded the Biden administration in a letter of the risks of growing complacent, saying that "Mpox was the first national novel infectious disease to test many of the systems put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it offers a roadmap to prepare for the next outbreak," The Hill imparted.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.