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Monkey business

Holland had the highest monkeypox infection rate in the world but infections have dropped dramatically. What are the lessons for Australia, asks Jennifer Hopelezz.

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In May this year we were confronted with the first ominous reports of a new virus circulating mainly amongst gay men. Coming on the heels of the two other on-going pandemics, HIV and COVID, it felt very much like a viral déjà vu. Another nasty little virus, but this one with a cute name, monkeypox.

And it’s certainly been a pox on our gay house.

Infections skyrocketed, mainly in the ‘sexually promiscuous’ gay male community, the place I call home. Stigma against gay men erupted once again, and was smeared very quickly over all of the other LGBTQI+ letters, with some prominent Dutch medical ‘experts’ calling on Pride Amsterdam to cancel its entire festival, and others asking for saunas and sex clubs to be shuttered (incidentally something that didn’t happen even at the height of the AIDS epidemic).

But just as quickly as monkey-pox appeared it seems to have disappeared. Reported infections in Holland are down from 35 per week in July to just two in mid-September. Why the drop?

The short answer is: no one really knows. Although vaccination rates are fairly high in the at-risk groups, there are studies showing the vaccines aren’t particularly effective. It could also be that a very large number of people had asymptomatic infections, affording some herd immunity.

And it’s certainly been a pox on our gay house.

What is sure is that many gay men changed their sexual behaviour. Visitor numbers were down 35% in both my businesses – a gay sauna and a fetish club – in-line with similar businesses throughout Europe.

So what lessons can we learn from this latest scare?

Firstly, education is essential and is often our only defence. Allow people to make their own
informed decisions about how best to protect themselves and others. The role of sex-on-premise venues is vital; they are a critical link between the government and community when coordinated properly and not threatened with forced closure. The dramatic change in sexual behaviour in the face of this latest threat is clear proof of this.

Secondly, community pressure groups are vital. The Dutch vaccination campaign was fast tracked only after community pressure boiled over. We need to keep a watch on how governments deal with our health issues. The lack of coordination even between different government departments can be quite shocking. A national monkeypox coordinator, like President Biden appointed in the US, would go a long way towards to solving this problem.

Thirdly, we need to fight the stigma. By emphasising that everyone can get monkeypox, not just promiscuous MSM. By taking responsibility as a community, and not looking away and pretending that it’s not our problem. And by not apologising for our sexuality. What we don’t need is anyone to lecture us on our sex lives. We’re proud of our sexuality and we won’t be slut shamed. Let’s make a clear distinction: being promiscuous does not mean being irresponsible.

Let’s hope this is really over – I for one am ready to start monkeying around again!

Australian-born Jennifer Hopelezz lives in Amsterdam.