Smallpox: misinformation masks the risk of infection hot online

Smallpox has appeared in more and more countries in recent months. The virus is accompanied by a flood of misinformation spreading on social networks, which makes control difficult, according to research commissioned by the US edition of MIT Technology Review.

As of June 17, 2,093 confirmed cases of the virus had been reported worldwide. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), they were found mainly in men who have sex with men. The WHO Director for Europe, the epicenter of the current epidemic, recently sounded the alarm and warned that authorities must do more to slow the spread.

Homophobic conspiracy theories, which roll over the net, often do not help here at all. According to research by the Center for Combating Digital Hate, it is spreading across all major social media platforms. Misinformation makes it harder to convince the public that smallpox can affect anyone – and could discourage people from reporting risks of infection.

Some of these false reports overlap with known pandemic conspiracy theories that attack Bill Gates and “global elites” or claim that the virus has been specially modified in the laboratory. Most of it is downright homophobic and tries to blame the LGBTQ + community for the outbreak. Some Twitter posts claim that countries where hate speech against LGBTQ + is banned are the areas with the highest incidence of smallpox. The virus is called “God’s Revenge.” In a video shared on Twitter last month, Georgia and US congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene falsely claimed that “monkey pox is only transmitted through gay sex.”

Until now, homophobic comments on articles on smallpox monkeys, which have received thousands of likes on Facebook, could remain online – although one particular article, which provoked hundreds of outraged reactions, was shared more than 40,000 times via Telegram.

The YouTube video on a channel with 1.12 million subscribers made numerous false claims – for example, avoiding monkey pox by not going to gay parties (“orgies”), not allowing a rodent to bite you, or by not keeping a prairie dog like pet. (Rodents and prairie dogs have been considered carriers in previous epidemics.) The video has been viewed more than 178,000 times. Another video from the channel with 294,000 subscribers continues, claiming that women will get chickenpox when they “come into contact with a man who was probably also in contact with another man”; was viewed almost 30,000 times. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube did not respond to comment requests at the time of writing.

Such a stigma has real consequences. Infected people who do not want to talk about their sex life are less likely to report their symptoms. This makes it difficult to detect new cases and fight the disease effectively. In fact, the virus can affect anyone and is independent of people’s sexual activity. Misinformation suggesting that smallpox only affects men who have sex with men can convince people that they are at less risk of infection and the spread of the disease than they actually are, says Julia Brainard, senior researcher at the University of East Anglia on modeling threats to public health. . “A lot of people will think, ‘I don’t care,’ he warns.

Uncertainty is further compounded by the fact that we still do not know all the ways in which smallpox is transmitted and why it is currently spreading. Although we know that the virus is transmitted by close contact with an infected person or animal. However, the WHO has also said it is investigating reports that it has been found in human sperm, suggesting that it may also be sexually transmitted. However, sequencing data have not yet provided any evidence that monkey pox is transmitted as a venereal disease. It is not even known which animal acts as a natural reservoir for monkeypox – although the WHO suspects it is a rodent.

Although it is still unclear how and where the current epidemic began, experts believe that the virus is likely to spread to people after two raves in Spain and Belgium outside some countries in West and Central Africa, where it is regularly observed to spread – especially among men who have sex. with men. While typical symptoms of monkeypox include swelling of the lymph nodes followed by a flare-up of lesions on the face, hands and feet, many people affected by a recent flare-up have fewer lesions on the hands, rectum, mouth and genitals this time. . This difference is probably related to the type of contact.

Monkey pox misinformation often takes advantage of society’s current homophobia, says Keletso Makofane, a professor of health and human rights at Harvard University. People who spread false news often focus on the way men have sex, he says. Community organizations that care for men who have sex with men do a good job by providing accurate, non-stigmatizing information. They encouraged people to be aware of changes in their bodies or those of their partners and to seek help if necessary.

More from MIT Technology Review

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Also successful are the ads within the gay dating application Grindr, which direct users to health care providers and extensive information about smallpox monkeys that have reached a wide audience. “I now believe in awareness among homosexuals [für das Thema Affenpocken] bigger than outside their community, ”says Makofane.

While we should take the smallpox threat seriously, there is no need to panic, says Derek Walsh, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University.

“The way monkey pox spreads is unlikely to spread like a COVID-19 pandemic. We also have effective vaccines,” he says. They usually attack against really eradicated “normal” smallpox. “Now we really have to be vigilant and avoid stigmatizing anyone who gets infected.”


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