Monkeypox (MPV) racial disparities remain a concern as White House announces new actions

Advocates say the Biden-Harris administration’s latest measures are welcomed, but it must do more to ensure MPV services are distributed equitably.

The Biden-Harris administration announced new actions to combat the monkeypox (MPV) outbreak in the United States, including increasing shipments of vaccines and targeting resources in vulnerable communities. However, advocates remain concerned racial disparities could persist.

On Thursday, the White House National Monkeypox Response team unveiled that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) will make an additional 1.8 million MPV vaccines available for order beginning Aug. 22. The agency will also provide more vaccines in jurisdictions connected to LGBTQ+ communities; and make available 50,000 patient courses of the MPV treatment drug, TPOXX, to targeted jurisdictions. 

A fact sheet sent out by the White House noted that the administration is making vaccine doses available ahead of schedule in hopes that they can be rapidly distributed to “individuals at high risk” of MPV, namely gay, bisexual and men who have sex with men, who make up a majority of cases in the United States, according to CDC data. 

While the administration has been careful about messaging following some public criticisms and concerns about stigmatization expressed by LGBTQ+ advocates, the White House in its Thursday announcement said it was providing technical assistance, support and resources to jurisdictions, and has already started working with some state health departments to prepare for large LGBTQ+ gatherings.

Despite the latest actions in efforts to curb the MPV outbreak, there remain concerns about racial disparities in vaccine access and outreach. In a statement provided to theGrio, Human Rights Campaign’s director of HIV and Health Equity, Torrian Baskerville, said the administration’s announcement to increase vaccine availability is a “welcome step forward,” but said governments on the federal, state and local levels must “do everything in their power to get these vaccines to the most impacted communities equitably.

“Public health officials have a responsibility to be intentional with vaccine distribution and access to treatment and testing. They must do better with prioritizing outreach to Black and brown gay, bi+, and transgender men, as well as transgender women and non-binary individuals, especially those individuals living with HIV,” said Baskerville, who said governments should partner with community organizations, sexual health clinics and event organizers “in a thoughtful way.” 

Baskerville noted that HRC has identified “deeply troubling” racial disparities in states like North Carolina and Georgia. The LGBTQ+ advocacy group pointed to data from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, which found that while Black men made up 70 percent of cases in the state, they received only 24 percent of administered vaccines in the state. 

On Friday, during a White House LGBTQ+ media-focused press briefing, White House National Monkeypox Response Deputy Coordinator Dr. Demetre Daskalakis acknowledged the racial disparities in vaccine access and said jurisdictions must partner with organizations and providers that focus on communities of color. 

Dr. Daskalakis also said he thinks “a lot of the racial disparities are driven by the things that have really been baked in for generations”—pointing to similar racial disparities in the HIV epidemic and, most recently, PrEP access. However, he did note “that’s not really solving for how to fix them.” 

Baskerville of HRC noted that “if this is happening with vaccines, it’s also very likely that BIPOC communities are experiencing the same inequity regarding treatment and care.” He added, “Time and time again, we’ve seen BIPOC communities sidelined when it comes to public health and overall health care in our country.”

He continued, “It’s exactly why we have been calling for an equitable public health response to MPV. A public health response that does not center equitable and accessible care and treatment for BIPOC communities is a failed response.”

In a recent sit-down interview with theGrio, Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden, acknowledged that while cases of MPV are not exclusive to the LGBTQ+ community, the community represents more than 95 percent of the cases. Most of those cases have been linked to sexual contact. 

To safeguard against contracting the virus, Dr. Fauci told theGrio that those at high risk should be “prudent” in their sexual interactions. “Once you get vaccinated and things are under control, then you can essentially go back to some sort of a normal way of looking at your life,” said Fauci. 

“But for the time being,” he warned, “really stay heads up for this because…though it isn’t a deadly infection, it can be really quite serious in some individuals with a lot of painful lesions that are very disruptive to one’s life.”