24th May 2024 – (Hong Kong) In the lively heart of Hong Kong’s Tsim Sha Tsui district, an ominous development has gripped the city’s gay community. The Centre for Health Protection has announced an ongoing investigation into a confirmed case of Mpox, the recently renamed monkeypox virus, traced back to the Cloakroom, a popular LGBTQ+ sauna establishment on Observatory Road. This alarming revelation has cast an unwelcome spotlight on a marginalized group already facing discrimination, fueling fears of further stigmatisation amid the Mpox outbreak.

The alarm bells rang even louder on May 6th when health authorities confirmed another Mpox case involving a 61-year-old man with underlying conditions. This patient reported high-risk contacts during visits to the infamous Big Top Gym & Sauna on Nathan Road in Mong Kok, a well-known haunt for the city’s gay community. Compounding concerns, the man also disclosed travelling to Thailand, where he engaged in further high-risk activities.

The gravity of the situation cannot be overstated. As health authorities grapple with containing the spread, a dangerous narrative has begun to take root – one that erroneously portrays Mpox as a “gay disease,” perpetuating harmful stereotypes and emboldening those who seek to ostracize the LGBTQ+ community. This vilification not only defies scientific facts but also threatens to undermine efforts to curb the outbreak, as stigma breeds secrecy and discourages individuals from seeking timely medical attention.

The gay community’s plight during this health crisis is a microcosm of the persistent challenges faced by sexual minorities worldwide. Deeply entrenched biases and prejudices have long plagued this group, subjecting them to marginalization, discrimination, and even violence. The mpox outbreak has provided a new catalyst for such intolerance, with the community unfairly shouldering the burden of a virus that knows no boundaries of sexual orientation or gender identity.

To comprehend the gravity of this issue, one must understand the complex dynamics at play. While it is true that a significant portion of Mpox cases has been reported among men who have sex with men (MSM), this does not inherently imply that the virus is exclusive to this demographic. Mpox is primarily transmitted through close physical contact, regardless of sexual orientation. The early concentration of cases within the gay community can be attributed to superspreader events, such as Pride festivals and parties, where intimate interactions facilitated rapid transmission.

Furthermore, the notion that Mpox is a “sexually transmitted infection” is a gross oversimplification. While sexual activity can increase the risk of transmission due to close physical contact, the virus can also spread through respiratory droplets and contaminated surfaces. Labelling it as a “gay disease” not only perpetuates harmful stereotypes but also obscures the reality that anyone, regardless of their sexual orientation, can contract pox.

The ramifications of such stigmatization are far-reaching and insidious. When a disease becomes inextricably linked to a specific community, it breeds an environment of fear, shame, and secrecy. Individuals may hesitate to seek medical attention or disclose their symptoms, allowing the virus to spread unchecked. This phenomenon is not without precedent – the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s serves as a haunting reminder of the devastating consequences of stigma, which hindered effective public health responses and cost countless lives.

Moreover, the stigmatisation of the gay community extends beyond the realm of physical health. It inflicts profound psychological and emotional harm, exacerbating the already considerable challenges faced by sexual minorities. Discrimination, social ostracisation, and even violence can become harsh realities, further marginalising a group that has fought tirelessly for acceptance and equality.

To effectively combat Mpox and protect public health, Hong Kong must confront the stigma head-on. This requires a multi-faceted approach that prioritises education, inclusion, and targeted interventions.

First and foremost, public health messaging must be accurate, non-discriminatory, and sensitive to the experiences of the gay community. Media outlets and officials should avoid sensationalized language or imagery that perpetuates stereotypes. Instead, communications should emphasize that Mpox can affect anyone and provide clear guidance on prevention and seeking care.

Secondly, the government must engage meaningfully with LGBTQ+ organisations and community leaders to understand their needs and concerns. Peer-led education and outreach programs can be powerful tools for disseminating information and building trust. Health authorities should collaborate with these groups to develop culturally appropriate interventions and ensure equitable access to testing, treatment, and vaccination.

Thirdly, efforts to control Mpox must be integrated with HIV prevention and care services. This includes offering Mpox education and vaccination alongside HIV testing, as well as providing comprehensive support for people living with HIV. By addressing these intersecting health issues holistically, Hong Kong can better protect its most vulnerable populations.

Finally, combating stigma requires a societal shift towards greater acceptance and inclusion of the gay community. This involves challenging discriminatory attitudes, promoting LGBTQ+ rights, and fostering open dialogue. Schools, workplaces, and community organizations all have a role to play in creating a more inclusive environment.

The Mpox crisis in Hong Kong has laid bare the insidious effects of stigma on public health. By perpetuating discrimination against the gay community, society not only marginalises an already vulnerable group but also undermines efforts to control the outbreak.