Health officials, advocates battle stigma and misinformation

CHAMPAIGN COUNTY, Ill. (WCIA) — Cases of the Monkeypox Virus — which health officials now prefer to call MPV — multiplied this month in Champaign County. The county reports the highest number of positives in any county outside of Chicago and its surrounding suburban counties.

Seven cases have been reported in the last two weeks, bringing the Champaign County total count to 10. Two cases were reported in July and before August 11, one case had been reported this month, according to Champaign Urbana Public Health administrator Julie Pryde. All reported cases have been in adults whose ages range from their 20s to 40s, she said.

This, as tens of thousands of students returned to the University of Illinois’s Champaign-Urbana campus late last week.

Awais Vaid, Director of the university’s McKinley Health Center said Thursday he expects there are already more than 10 MPV cases in the county. He had the same thought of surrounding counties that are not reporting any cases at this point. The closest reported incidences of the virus are two cases in Macon County and another two in Sangamon County.

No university students have tested positive in the week since campus came back to life for the new school year. Although, Vaid — who now sits at the helm of responding to and mitigating MPV at the state’s largest school — said the student population does have a high-risk level for contracting it.

“They live in close quarters, you know, they’re spending a lot of time together,” Vaid added.

The director was not worried as much about classroom interactions. His bigger concern lies with the time spent in the dorms and at other social events. “Especially in those in those events where clothing is minimal,” he said.

The CDC updated guidance recently on how MPV spreads, including through touching fabrics and surfaces used by someone who is infected. Long sleeves and pants “really do reduce the exposure levels or risk levels,” Vaid said.

that Still, he estimated 95% or more of cases have been developed after close skin-to-skin or sexual contact.

The director attributed the lack of positive tests to the students’ conscious behavior.

“They don’t want to be very close to each other,” Vaid said. “They really want to experience campus life. And they don’t want to be in a situation where they have monkeypox or COVID, and they are now in isolation for — with MPV, it could be up to 28 days.”

Vaid was a familiar face in the Champaign County COVID-19 response as the Champaign Urbana Public Health (C-UPHD) deputy director.

MPV cases in cities and counties outside of metro Champaign-Urbana are underreported he expects, in part, for the same reason COVID-19 cases were less reported in those areas.

“I know that the hospital system is testing, I know [Champaign Urbana] Public Health is testing and I know that McKinley is testing as well. But in many of the communities, you don’t have the resources or the expertise to test as well,” he explained.

There’s an added barrier to MPV case data, he said. “In my opinion, a lot of individuals choose not to test because they don’t want to be associated with MPV as a stigma.”

As cases climb in Illinois, public health officials like Vaid and LGBTQ+ advocates are also in a battle against stigma and misinformation that has been hand-in-hand with the virus since the start of the outbreak.

The LGBTQ+ community, particularly men who have sex with men, has been associated with a higher risk for MPV.

The focus for health officials initially responding to the virus was where the first few cases were publicly reported — among gay or bisexual men. Any disease naturally spreads initially within a “social network,” as Vaid explained, but he made it abundantly clear that where it happened was happenchance.

For a virus that’s been around for decades, “this is the first time that the actual outbreak was concentrated in one social demographic,” Vaid said.

“You’re not seeing the full spectrum of the disease spread in different demographics,” Vaid said, something he expects would change if a more broad willingness to come forward and test developed.

“The more we test, the more we, you know, do contact tracing, we’ll find out that there are a lot more communities and demographics that have been affected,” he added.

The bottom line: Anyone can get monkeypox and no demographic factors make anyone more susceptible than others.

“This is not a sexually transmitted infection. And it is not an infection primarily of men who have sex with men, anybody can get infected with MPV, as we have already known.”

That misconception has led to “finger-pointing and blame,” said Nicole Frydman, director of operations at non-profit Uniting Pride of Champaign County.

“We all know the history of stigma and ostracization that happens with the queer community when an illness impacts us in high numbers,” she said.

Marginalized communities in general are adversely affected almost, if not always because resources are more limited in those communities, both Frydman and Vaid said.

“It is really, really important that we be very careful in the way we message monkeypox,” Frydman stressed.

“Are we seeing higher rates in our community? Yeah, but guess what? Health outcomes in LGBTQ+ communities are worse across the board. We are a marginalized and victimized community that systemically is kept from access, so monkeypox is not an exception. It’s the rule.”

Destigmatizing, Vaid said, is key to getting more people tested and treated, which is critical to getting ahead of future spread and developing data to learn more about the virus.

One of those destigmatization efforts was the move to call the virus “MPV”.

Vaccines are also available to University of Illinois students. The McKinley Health Center recently received 400 doses from the state, Vaid said.

C-UPHD has between 1,500 to 1900 doses, according to Pryde.

Both facilities are reserving them for people whom the CDC defines as higher risk:

  • People who have been identified by public health officials as a contact of someone with monkeypox
  • People who are aware that one of their sexual partners in the past 2 weeks has been diagnosed with monkeypox
  • People who had multiple sexual partners in the past 2 weeks in an area with known monkeypox
  • People whose jobs may expose them to orthopoxviruses, such as:
    • Laboratory workers who perform testing for orthopoxviruses
    • Laboratory workers who handle cultures or animals with orthopoxviruses
    • Some designated healthcare or public health workers

C-UPHD adopted the Illinois Department of Public Health’s vaccination strategy, which is in line with the CDC’s definition of people “who may be more likely to get monkeypox.”