In the last six weeks, the United States has watched domestic monkeypox cases jump from one to over 2,000. This virus is already spreading throughout Michigan, and it shows no sign of slowing down. If powerful institutions don’t act soon, we risk repeating the same failures that exacerbated the COVID-19 pandemic. Before monkeypox develops further, the University of Michigan and its leaders must develop a virus mitigation plan, communicate that plan to local stakeholders and fight to secure vaccines — our best tool for stopping this disease — for those most at risk.
What is monkeypox? Like smallpox, monkeypox is an orthopoxvirus. This type of virus causes its host’s body to break out in weeping sores. These sores can occur anywhere, but they are often concentrated on the mouth, face, genitals, hands and feet. This virus’s characteristic blisters are extraordinarily painful, keeping people from eating, sleeping or even using the restroom properly for weeks at a time. When these sores heal, they may leave permanent scarring. Those with monkeypox will often display flu-like symptoms: painful swelling of the lymph nodes, skin rashes, exhaustion and more. Monkeypox isn’t a short-lived disease, either. Its symptoms may last up to a month, during which time one must quarantine. This disease can be incredibly disruptive to one’s job, classes, social life and mental health.
People can transmit this virus through primary contact (direct touching), secondary contact (touching something someone sick has touched) and bodily fluids (saliva or fomites). Experts currently believe that primary contact is responsible for the majority of cases, and while the media has focused on the link between sexual activity and monkeypox exposure, Dr. Robert Murphy, an infectious diseases expert at Northwestern Medicine notes that monkeypox is “not an STD in the classic sense.” Any form of direct contact with someone risks exposure — that includes hugging, kissing or even dancing closely with others on a crowded dance floor.
If the growing outbreak of monkeypox isn’t on your radar, I’m not surprised. To date, the University of Michigan has failed to make any university-wide communications about the spread of this disease. The University Health Service has no easily accessible information about its symptoms or how to report a case: in fact, searching “monkeypox” on the UHS website returns no results whatsoever. There’s only been one University affiliated blog post on monkeypox written in the last six weeks — a piece which calls the disease a “rare viral threat.”
Except monkeypox isn’t rare. This disease is disproportionately harming queer communities across the United States. It’s spreading so rapidly that the health infrastructure of major US cities such as New York City, Chicago and San Francisco have completely failed to keep up with testing, vaccination and treatment. What’s worse, many clinics lack the capacity to test for the disease, so it’s likely that cases are vastly underreported. While a vaccine for monkeypox does exist, demand greatly exceeds the federal supply. Monkeypox is spreading throughout Michigan, and without intervention, it will affect our community soon. Only hubris could lead us to believe otherwise. While we may be collectively exhausted from COVID-19, we must not allow exhaustion to morph into apathy for the queer community and other medically vulnerable populations.
There is good news: We know how to slow this virus. By combining mass vaccination, the use of antivirals and the implementation of common-sense community health measures (e.g., testing and tracing), we can stop monkeypox before it takes hold in our communities. But we cannot do this on our own. We’ll need the University of Michigan to work with state and federal politicians to secure vaccines. We’ll need U-M leaders to disseminate clear and decisive communication about this disease’s symptoms. We’ll need the University to work with community leaders to ensure that our public health response is fair and equitable. We need bold and decisive public health leadership, and we need it today.
The University of Michigan can take immediate action to fight this emerging disease. First, the University can begin to work with a diverse group of community leaders to develop a monkeypox mitigation plan. This needs to address the following questions, among others: How will the University secure and distribute vaccines? How will the University prioritize and reach uniquely vulnerable communities, such as the queer community? How will it ramp up free and convenient community testing? How will it address contact tracing? How should community members report a suspected case? If a student develops monkeypox during the semester, how will the University support them academically? If faculty or GSIs develop monkeypox and cannot teach, what professional and financial support is available? How will the University provide quarantine housing for affected students or employees?
But a plan in and of itself is insufficient. If our leaders act without transparency, they risk eroding the trust of students, staff and the broader community. The University must begin clear, widespread and non-stigmatizing communication about this virus. University-wide emails should inform students and employees about symptoms to watch out for. UHS should have clear and easily accessible information about monkeypox on its website. UHS providers must be able to answer questions about monkeypox and provide a realistic vaccination timeline. In its communications, our leaders should emphasize their systematic response and not shame individuals who are already suffering under this illness, or they will risk driving potential cases into secrecy.
Finally, the University must leverage its influence to secure a sufficient and just distribution of vaccines in our state. Cities across the country lack enough vaccines, and cities in Michigan are no exception. Only by pressuring state and federal officials will the University of Michigan ensure that hospitals can provide vaccines to patients most at-risk for contact with this virus. Securing enough vaccines will likely be a long and arduous task — all the more reason for the University to begin its vaccination plan as soon as possible.
This virus will require a decisive and equitable response. Let us reject the logic of individuality and instead find strength in solidarity. Let us work together to protect our friends, colleagues and neighbors. Let’s get a lead on monkeypox before it’s too late.
Josh Petersen is a PhD student in philosophy at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He is a member of the LGBTQ+ community.