An old disease is haunting new territories, leading to public health emergency declarations across the globe.
Monkeypox is spreading uncontrollably with more than 25,000 cases across the world. The country with the most cases is the United States, with over 14,000.
Of the 49 affected states, California has the greatest number of cases.
The World Health Organization declared monkeypox a public health emergency in July, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
The U.S. declared it an emergency in August.
Monkeypox is painful and can lead to permanent scarring. It can cause fever, headache, muscle aches, backache, swollen lymph nodes, chills, exhaustion, nasal congestion, cough, a rash on any part of the body, pimples and blisters. Most people get rashes.
While monkeypox can be painful, and in rare cases deadly, there doesn’t seem to be much public concern for this disease.
“The name just sounds funny,” said SQ resident Greg Eskridge, smiling. “It’s like chickenpox. Why are you naming it after animals?”
This disease was discovered in a colony of monkeys in 1958. The first known human case was in the 1970s. Said to be the cousin of smallpox, monkeypox is known to be transmitted from animals to humans.
When I asked other San Quentin residents if they were worried about this disease, some laughed or looked at me like I was accusing them of something. It seems as if this disease is taboo to talk about.
Some SQ residents see monkeypox as a gay disease.
“The media said you have to be gay or transgender to catch this disease,” said resident E. Phil Phillips.
Although the majority of cases have been found in the gay community, everyone is susceptible to this disease.
Monkeypox has been contracted by children and heterosexual adults. There is also evidence the disease was spread from a human to a dog. Thus, the idea that this is a gay disease is untrue.
Eskridge sees the media representation of monkeypox as spreading a dangerous public narrative.
“I think they don’t want to alarm people, so they’re blaming it on the gays,” said Eskridge.
Dangerous public narratives often lead to violence against marginalized communities, as was the case when President Trump referred to COVID-19 as the Asian flu or Chinese virus. It was also seen in the early 1980s, when rich gay men were dying from AIDS and catching HIV.
“It’s not a gay disease; it’s a disease spread through skin-to-skin contact with open sores,” said SQ resident Delvon Adams.
There are two types of monkeypox. The first is a West African subtype with a high probability of causing scarring and a low fatality rate of 1%, according to the CDC.
The Congo Basin strain is more dangerous, with a 10% fatality rate for immuno-com-promised people. Pregnant women and children are also at higher risk of complications from this strain.
Monkeypox can spread through sex; skin-to-skin contact; rash; scabs; bodily fluids touching objects like bed sheets, clothing, towels or other surfaces; respiratory secretions; hugging; massaging; kissing; prolonged face-to-face contact. It’s also possible to get monkeypox by being bitten or scratched by an infected animal.
The virus enters the body through broken skin or the eyes, nose or mouth, and can live on bed sheets up to 15 days, while the illness lasts 2-4 weeks.
The biggest concern is that monkeypox, like COVID-19, spreads orally and through respiratory secretions. The CDC recommends that people wear a well-fitting mask.
Experts worry that this dis-ease could begin to spread in overcrowded jails and prisons.
At least one case was found in the Cook County Jail in Illinois.
SQ residents and incarcerated people throughout the prison system should take precautions.
“We live in a place that was the epicenter of a deadly outbreak of COVID-19. It’s only a matter of time before this disease also enters this prison,” said Adams.