A new viral disease is arriving in the USA, Canada and Europe, and there are also first cases in Germany – and with them a debate about the stigmatization of people.
The disease in question is dubbed “monkeypox”. It jumped from animals to humans. There have always been cases in West and Central Africa. How exactly the virus got to Europe is still being researched, probably also through sexual contacts. However, the exact distribution routes and risk groups have not yet been determined.
Nevertheless, the word combination “monkeypox” and “gay” has made it into many headlines and social media posts in the past few days and triggered many reactions. It was about the question of whether homosexual and bisexual men would once again be given a kind of ‘yuck’ label via the detour of monkeypox, with which they could be devalued – as was the case with AIDS in the 1980s.
The fact that this happened is also due to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI). The institute published an early response to the first cases of monkeypox in Europe on May 19. In addition to recommendations to doctors as to which people should be included in “differential diagnostic considerations”, the corresponding bulletin only contains one sentence that is aimed directly at a group of people: Men who have sex with men (“MSM” for short) should if they observe any unusual skin changes in themselves, “seek immediate medical attention.” It was spread like this – and for some it quickly became clear: only gays get it.
Was it right or premature to derive such a group-specific request from the very few cases, most of which were “MSM”? Of course, transmission routes and risk groups of an infectious disease must be named. If they are fixed. However, the findings on the transmission routes of monkeypox do not yet allow a focus on just one group of people. The RKI bulletin also refers to many different transmission routes. But if you highlight a group too early, you risk that everyone who is not named may feel wrongly safe.
The risk of stigmatization is also great. In this case, the name of the disease is added: in the case of monkeypox, people are associated with a disease that has primitive connotations, which triggers negative associations and possibly rejection.
Society today is certainly much more sensitive to issues of stigma and discrimination than it was in the 1980s. But the corona pandemic has shown that the danger of defining a new devaluation group should by no means be considered averted. Instead of distinguishing new variants as “Indian” or “South African” according to the areas where they first appeared, they changed their designation and named them with Greek letters. They didn’t want to nurture any reservations, and in retrospect it can be said that it was a good idea.
Language sensitivity is also noticeable in monkeypox. Scientists are increasingly using the scientific term MPXV. And the stigmatizing sentence from the RKI bulletin has now disappeared. One probably came to the conclusion that it was too ambiguous. The WHO also emphasizes: “This is not a gay disease.”
Only the Federal Minister of Health stayed. At the G7 meeting on Monday in Geneva, Karl Lauterbach repeated the recommendation previously removed by the RKI and also addressed “anonymous sex”. He used it to paint the resentment-laden picture of the vicious “MSM” life. The statement brings no further benefit to the topic, rather it causes harm.