On Aug. 4, the White House declared monkeypox a public health emergency.
The declaration follows the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) announcement in July that monkeypox is a public health emergency of international concern. In a statement, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned of another possible outcome of the virus: stigma.
“Stigma and discrimination can be as dangerous as any virus,” Ghebreyesus said.
Nearly all (98 percent) individuals diagnosed with the virus between April and June 2022 in 16 countries identify as gay or bisexual men, according to a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
The WHO advised men who have sex with men to reduce their number of sexual partners and reconsider sex with new partners while the outbreak is ongoing. The advice mirrors that of Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden, who told MSNBC that these individuals should strongly consider getting the monkeypox vaccine as a preventive measure.
While many health experts have stated that monkeypox is not a sexually transmitted disease, some LGBTQ-rights advocates still fear that the spread of the virus could lead to discrimination in the workplace.
“We are likely to see some of what happened during the AIDS epidemic, where many people will be afraid to be around or interact with LGBTQ+ people,” said Ben Greene, a St. Louis-based public speaker, consultant and LGBTQ-rights activist. “This is likely to drive stigma through the roof.”
Fighting the ‘Gay Disease’ Stigma
While monkeypox has largely impacted gay or bisexual men, cases have also been seen in children and pregnant women in the U.S. The pathogen can affect anyone who has close contact with someone who has it, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
But that doesn’t mean the LGBTQ community won’t face discrimination, according to Ella Washington, professor of practice for the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. She also serves as an expert in the intersection of business, diversity, leadership and bias in the workplace.
“If the stigma that monkeypox is a ‘gay disease’ [is] the primary narrative, employers may start to make assumptions that applicants or employees that disclose they have been infected by monkeypox are LGBTQ—or vice versa that a person who identifies as LGBTQ may put others at risk for monkeypox,” Washington said.
This may manifest in how employers engage with employees, such as by avoiding physical contact with gay workers or assuming that they would be bad hires because they are likely to become infected and miss work, Washington explained.
“These are all terrible assumptions that can come from a simplified and targeted message around the disease,” she said. “The focus should be to raise awareness for all individuals and in that education be transparent about who is at greater risk while reminding individuals that the disease itself can be contracted by any close or intimate contact.”
How Employers Can Control the Narrative
Washington said it is important for organizations to leverage relevant data from reputable sources, such as the CDC or the WHO, to avoid spreading misinformation about monkeypox that feeds into stigma.
She also suggested that companies:
Raise awareness about the disease. Spread credible, research-based information about the virus, its symptoms and how it is transmitted.
Highlight health benefits. Inform employees of any health benefits or services that are covered by the insurance you offer. Provide information about health testing and make recommendations on how to safely access vaccines.
Do not frame monkeypox as an LGBTQ virus. As more information becomes available about the disproportionate impact on gay and bisexual communities, organizations should cite the data without overstating the connection to LGBTQ workers. Also mention that the virus can impact people of all backgrounds and demographics.
Avoid sensationalizing the virus. The role of the organization should be to emphasize the importance of all employees’ health and to share accurate and relevant health information and services without sensationalizing.
If information is shared with limited sensationalizing, the potential is greater for awareness rather than stigma, Washington noted.
“We must keep in mind that because of the polarizing implications of sensationalizing news, it can be easy for a health conversation to evolve into one about the behaviors and lifestyles of different identity groups,” she said. “And this is a dangerous area to enter without verified and well-researched information.”
Greene noted that companies should also be aware of the anxiety that LGBTQ employees could be feeling as monkeypox, as well as misinformation and stigma associated with the virus, continues to spread globally.
“For your LGBTQ+ employees—specifically gay, bi and queer men—acknowledge that the dramatic rise in stigma is likely a significant additional stressor right now,” Greene said. “And provide them additional support or resources as needed.”