FEARS GROW AMONG PEOPLE THAT HOMOPHOBIA MAY HINDER MONKEYPOX FIGHT IN INDONESIA
JAKARTA, INDONESIA, JULY 31, 2022 (SUNDAY) : It is feared that the prevailing homophobia in Indonesia, home to the world's largest Muslim population, might derail the government's efforts to contain the spread of monkeypox, which has infected more than 16,000 people in 75 countries.
Monkeypox is a zoonotic disease that spreads through direct contact with infectious skin or lesions, including face-to-face, skin-to-skin and respiratory droplets.
The virus, which originated from Africa, can infect anyone regardless of their sexual orientation, health experts have insisted, dispelling any homophobic notion that it is somehow a 'gay disease ".
The current outbreak of the virus, however, is believed to have primarily spread through a network of men who have sex with men.
According to a World Health Organisation report, out of the 5,500 cases who reported their sexually, more than 95 percent identified themselves as gay, bisexual or as other men who have sex with men.
The report has raised concerns about stigmatization that could further complicate efforts to contain the spread of the virus, which is believed to pose a greater danger to children, the immunocompromised and pregnant women.
Indonesia, where the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community has in recent decades been a target of state-sponsored persecution, has yet to report a single confirmed case of monkeypox, but concerns have been raised about whether the increasing anti-LGBTQ sentiment may have compromised the government's ability to conduct surveillance among the high-risk population.
" There is a relatively huge possibility that monkeypox has arrived in Indonesia," said Dicky Budiman, an epidemiologist from Australia's Griffith University.
Budiman explained that this was mainly because international flights and public mobility had already returned to pre-pandemic levels, and that Indonesia was also home to the specific population that is currently considered as being particularly prone to being infected.
The other reason why Indonesia may not be free of monkeypox, he added, was the growing stigmatization against the high-risk population.
" When an individual is exposed [to the virus], and they belong to a high-risk group, they will choose to lay low. This could pose a greater risk. They are not open with their family, let alone health workers."
The government, Budiman said, must increase surveillance of the high-risk population to curb the spread of the virus, but this must be done with care by strictly upholding " the principles of justice, equality and human rights".
The Healthy Ministry recently announced that nice suspected cases had been found in Jakarta, West Java, Central Java and West Kalimantan of Indonesia.
They have all tested negative for monkeypox, according to ministry spokesman Muhammad Syahril.
The government has said it has increased its surveillance capacity by preparing 10 additional genomic-sequencing labs throughout the country.
It is also set to distribute 1,500 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test kits for monkeypox to the regions.
LEARNING FROM PAST MISTAKE !
Misinformation describing monkeypox as a "gay disease " has been gaining ground on Indonesian social media after the WHO declared the disease a global health emergency and noted the fact that the majority of cases were concentrated among gay people.
While health experts highlighted the high prevalence among gay and bisexual men in order to underscore the current pattern of infection, which is necessary for containment efforts, critics have said that it had inadvertently fueled stigmatization.
Gay-rights activists have thus called on the government to avoid using language that could further stigmatize the gay community in their public-awareness campaign about the danger of monkeypox, and to learn from past mistakes.
" It is important to recognise that the spread of monkeypox is not caused by a certain sexual orientation.
Since the virus is spread by skin-to-skin contact, it just happened to be most common among men who have sex with men, but that does not mean only gay people are infected," said medical practitioner and LGBTQ-rights activist Alegra Wolter.
Alegra said the government should be careful in linking certain sexual orientations to illnesses, since increasing public stigma will only make those at high risk of contracting monkeypox hesitant to get themselves tested or get treatment for the virus. " Let's learn from our management of the HIV epidemic.
When we stigmatize certain groups that have already been experiencing layers of discrimination, this can directly derail [the government's] response to the disease itself," Alegra added.
Dede Oetomo, founder of GAYs Nusantara--Indonesia's oldest LGBTQ advocacy group-enchoed Alegra's sentiment, saying that it is true that while " Gay men Are Most Prone " to the virus, the notion that monkeypox only infects gay men needs to be thoroughly debunked.
SENDING THE RIGHT MESSAGE !
The Health Ministry has said it will pay special attention to high-risk populations and gave an assurance that its surveillance strategy will not discriminate against the gay and bisexual community.
Dede, meanwhile, encouraged gay and bisexual men with symptoms of monkeypox, but who are unsure about how to get themselves tested, to reach out to LGBTQ-advocacy groups.
" Reflecting back on our experiences with the HIV [Epidemic], support groups know what to do, they are well connected. The problem is those who are not close to the [gay] community or advocacy groups. They are closeted. They could be a problem," he said.
It is possible that upper - or middle - income gay people who choose not to connect with support groups would be more hesitant to report and thus hard-to-reach, he said.
" They do not want to go to a community-health center, or even hospitals. They may even ask their doctors to keep mum."
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@ Jackie San