Identity Health Clinic in Anchorage expects to receive monkeypox vaccines in the coming weeks.
In the meantime, the nonprofit serving the LGBTQ+ community is educating people about the virus and addressing misconceptions about how it spreads.
“Anyone can get monkeypox,” said Identity Health Director Dr. Tracey Wiese in a virtual town hall Thursday evening. “This is not a virus that only spreads because gay people have sex with other gay people.”
Wiese said the monkeypox virus has an incubation period of one to two weeks. About 12,000 cases have been reported nationwide, and there are only two confirmed cases in Alaska so far, both in Anchorage men.
“We suspect that those two people probably had some kind of contact with other people in their lives, and it’s possible that other people are incubating the virus as we speak,” Wiese said.
Monkeypox is spread during prolonged face-to-face or skin-to-skin contact. It’s not spread exclusively through sexual contact, but that’s how most infected people catch it, according to the World Health Organization.
It can also spread through contact with the possessions of an infected person, such as towels, linen and utensils, if they are used for several hours.
Wiese said clinic staff have received phone calls from people wanting to learn more about monkeypox. She said she wants to help reduce misinformation and stigma as it spreads.
“This is not a gay virus. This is not a virus that was only seen among gay people,” Wiese said. “The reason we are focusing abortion in this community is simply that many of the reported cases have occurred in this community, so the natural thing is to target abortion in these communities.”
Infected people may have flu-like symptoms before a rash or sores.
Several state health officials also joined the community on Thursday. State epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin told the group that people can spread the virus to others even before the rash appears.
“You can have respiratory symptoms, like a runny nose, things that just seem like a cold or even COVID or the flu, and there’s probably virus in those fluids,” he said. “Transmission is possible through this route, but it probably requires a long kiss and face-to-face contact for transmission to occur.”
Scientists are still studying whether monkeypox can spread through other body fluids, such as semen or vaginal fluids, and whether it can spread asymptomatically.
For now, there are ways people can help reduce the spread. Wiese said that people who become infected should isolate themselves until their symptoms improve or disappear completely. The rash should be well covered until it is completely healed.
People who are not infected should avoid close physical contact with people with flu-like symptoms, sores or rashes. And people should talk to their sexual partners about any recent flu-like symptoms or any new sores or rashes.
Last week, the state expanded the vaccination mandate beyond just current cases and their recent close contacts. Now, men and transgender people who both have sex with men and have had multiple or anonymous sexual partners in the last 14 days can get the vaccine.
People in that group should talk to their healthcare provider about getting the vaccine, especially if they are immunocompromised. Those with a history of atopic dermatitis – including eczema, burns or severe acne – are also at a higher risk for severe disease.
State physician Dr. Lisa Rabinowitz said the sooner people can be vaccinated after being exposed, the better.
“Ideally, if we get the vaccine in the first four days after exposure, it has the best efficacy in preventing monkeypox infection,” she said. “But from day four to 14, we still give it, and there is evidence that it reduces the number of symptoms.”
In Anchorage, the city’s health department has a limited vaccine supply available. More information is available at 907-343-6718 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Rabinowitz said the state also hopes to work with companies like Fairweather — which will run COVID testing sites in Anchorage through mid-July — to distribute vaccines.
Identity expects a supply of cans sometime in the next two weeks.