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Monkeypox primarily spreads through prolonged skin-to-skin contact. South Agency/Getty Images
  • Misinformation has been spreading about monkeypox, including that it is a sexually transmitted infection (STI).
  • Monkeypox is not an STI and can spread through skin-to-skin contact between any two or more people.
  • Health experts say such misinformation can give people a false sense of security, believing they are not at risk.
  • It can also cause shame, leading some people to avoid seeking necessary treatment.

Misinformation has undermined public health efforts for years, spreading even further and faster in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A 2021 Kaiser Family Foundation Report suggested that 78% of adults reported that they had heard at least one of eight incorrect statements about COVID-19 and believed it or were unsure if it was accurate or not.

A 2022 study suggested an association between online misinformation and early hesitancy or refusal to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

Now, a new public health emergency has emerged: Monkeypox.

Though it has been around since at least 1958, when it got its name, The World Health Organization declared monkeypox a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on July 23, a rare designation that signifies the disease is a threat that needs a coordinated worldwide response.

Once again, misinformation is spreading, notably that the disease is a sexually transmitted infection (STI), and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene recently added to the confusion with a tweet suggesting this false claim.

Infectious disease experts say these types of rumors are damaging.

“It gives a false sense of safety to people who are at risk,” says Dr. Linda Yancey, an infectious disease specialist with the Memorial Hermann Health System in Houston. “If people falsely think this is an STI, they will not take the steps needed to protect themselves.”

And misinformation doesn’t just put people at risk.

“It also gives people the mistaken impression that this cannot be spread to animals, which it absolutely can,” Yancey says. “Monkeypox is primarily a disease of animals, and it can be spread back to them. We are trying hard to get the word out that patients with the virus should have no contact with any animals, wild or domestic, to prevent the virus from getting into local animal populations.”

What’s more, Dr. Michelle Forcier, a clinician withFOLX Health, says there’s an idea out there that the virus is only spreading among gay and bisexual men. Combined with the misinformation about STIs, it’s creating what she feels is a dangerous stigma that hurts LGBTQIA+ communities that already face discrimination.

“The monkeypox rumors are harmful because they isolate and seem to ‘blame’ a particular group of persons for spreading this infection,” Forcier says. “Calling the monkeypox virus an STI and linking it to our culture’s view of sex as scary or shameful may keep persons exposed or infected from getting medical attention.”

Experts are urging people to learn the difference between facts and fiction spreading about monkeypox.

The reason why monkeypox is not an STI comes down to nuance in the way it is predominately spread.

Yancey explains that sexually transmitted infections are primarily spread through sexual contact, whether oral, vaginal, or anal. Some, like herpes, can be spread via skin-to-skin contact, but it’s not the primary means.

Monkeypox is the other way around.

“It is passed by skin-to-skin contact,” Yancey says. “You can get monkeypox from someone without having sex with them. In much the same way that you can get COVID from a sex partner without COVID being an STI, you can get monkeypox without it being an STI.”

Yancey says monkeypox primarily spreads through prolonged skin-to-skin contact.

The CDC adds that respiratory secretions from face-to-face interactions, typically while caring for an individual with monkeypox, can also cause spread.

It can also spread through saliva or from a pregnant person to the fetus through the placenta.

Yancey says it’s also been known to spread on unwashed surfaces like bed linens and towels.

The CDC says monkeypox does not spread:

  • during casual conversations
  • when walking past someone with monkeypox in a store
  • touching doorknobs

The CDC is still learning whether it spreads through semen or vaginal fluids and contact with individuals with monkeypox who do not have symptoms.

In an interview with the NPR podcast, All Things Considered, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the chief medical advisor to Pres. Biden, mentioned that monkeypox cases have occurred in men who have sex with other men. However, it’s not only a disease affecting the LGBTQIA+ community. Two children have gotten the disease.

Fauci, who was on the front lines of the HIV crisis, which also disproportionately harmed the LGBTQIA+ community, urged that the “government must fight homophobic stigmas surrounding monkeypox.”

Forciersays that this myth won’t only lead to people thinking they are in the clear if they are not a man who has sex with men. She says it is reminiscent of the HIV hysteria in the 1980s, which was also incorrectly thought of as a disease only affecting gay people.

“It is inaccurate and stigmatizing to label any disease as belonging to or caused by a group of people,” Forcier says.

Forcier emphasizes that monkeypox is caused by a virus, not people. She stresses that viruses are all around us.

“Sometimes, with exposure, [viruses] cause infection,” Forcier says. “Monkeypox is a virus, and unlike people, monkeypox does not discriminate.”

The reason monkeypox has mostly affected gay men to date is in line with typical viral spread.

“Some viruses like to spread via clusters of people, whether that is a home, school, or nursing home,” she says.

Public health officials, the government, and doctors are still learning more about monkeypox. But there are already some best practices people can use to keep themselves safe during an emergency.

Avoid skin-to-skin contact

Yancey says this step is the most important in mitigating the risk of contracting monkeypox.

“Social distancing is cool again,” Yancey says.

Yancey suggests waving instead of shaking hands and not engaging in skin-to-skin contact with anyone outside your household or who has shown symptoms of monkeypox.

Ask infected household members to wear masks

The mask guidance surrounding monkeypox mitigation has been a bit confusing.

The CDC has recommended wearing a mask to prevent spread. Unlike COVID-19, monkeypox is not airborne. But in a media advisory on June 9, the CDC noted that there is a difference between airborne and respiratory transmission — and monkeypox can spread via the latter.

“Airborne transmission occurs when small virus particles become suspended in the air and can stay there for periods,” the advisory said. “These particles can spread on air currents or sometimes even infect people who enter a room after the infected person has left. In contrast, monkeypox may be found in droplets like saliva or respiratory secretions that drop out of the air quickly.”

The CDC suggests individuals with monkeypox wear a mask if they must be around others in their homes if close, face-to-face contact is likely.

Yancey notes that it can also help lower the dual threat of monkeypox and COVID-19, which is still currently spreading.

Wear disposable gloves around infected individuals or those displaying symptoms

Since the virus spreads through skin-to-skin contact, the U.N. advises people to wear disposable gloves when caring for someone with monkeypox or handling items like clothing or utensils they have touched.

Wash hands

Yancey says that frequent handwashing is essential.

“Hand sanitizer is very effective at killing monkeypox, and all of us should have a bottle in our pocket right now,” she says.

The CDC advises people to use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer or soap and water.

Get vaccinated

Yancey says that there is a vaccine that is 85% effective in preventing monkeypox, a number also reported by the CDC, though supply is limited.

Currently, individuals should seek a vaccine if they:

  • have been notified by public health officials that they have been in contact with a person who has developed monkeypox
  • know that a sexual partner has been diagnosed with monkeypox in the last two weeks
  • have had multiple sexual partners during the previous two weeks in an area with high monkeypox rates
  • are at an increased risk for occupational exposure, such as laboratory employees who test for orthopoxviruses

Do the laundry and dishes

Monkeypox can spread by touching utensils, towels, clothing, and bed linens used by a person who has developed monkeypox. The U.N. recommends washing those items with warm water and detergent before re-using them.

Have an open dialogue with intimate partners

Forcier suggests asking sexual partners who you would like to have skin-to-skin contact with if they have been exposed to monkeypox or are experiencing symptoms.

“If this person [or people] says yes, it might be wise to wait a while until the risk of infection is over before returning to having sex with that person [or people],” she says. “It should be okay to ask our sexual partners about exposure or risk to all kinds of infections, from the common cold or COVID to monkeypox. Ideally, we want ourselves and our partners to all be safe and healthy.”