Lessons from monkeypox can shape future health communication

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Capital News Service

LANSING – Michigan health officials say that the monkeypox virus challenges them with a tricky task of providing health information without stigmatizing high-risk populations.

After the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released information about the monkeypox virus, there was concern that if the messaging were not handled properly, people would assume the virus was a “gay disease, and blame the LGBTQ community for its spread, said Leslie Boker, health coordinator at the Grand Rapids Pride Center.

“As a community, we tend to be watchful of things like this, especially after how badly HIV/AIDS was communicated to the public decades ago,” Boker said. “I think that’s still heavy on the minds of our community – gay men especially.”

Blaming certain groups for the spread of a virus is nothing new.

Research shows that people tend to form “in groups,” and “out groups,” depending on who they feel most connected to, Maria Lapinski-LaFaive, the director of the Michigan State University Health and Risk Communication Center, wrote in an e-mail. 

LGBTQ people have historically been an “out group,” and because messaging about the monkeypox virus was directed mainly towards gay men, people could interpret that to mean only they could get the disease.

That was exacerbated by a tendency for “optimistic bias,” Lapinski-LaFaive said. 

“We think things are more likely to happen to other people and not us,” she said.

One way to combat misinterpretation of health campaigns is to include audiences in designing health campaigns.

Heather Alberda, a sexuality educator at the Ottawa County Health Department, agreed.

“At our health department, we believe in meeting communities where they’re at,” Alberda said. “This means using language they understand and going into communities to talk to people to understand what is most important to them.”

The Ottawa County Health Department connected with a Holland LGBTQ community center and a LGBT resource center at Grand Valley State University.

“Our goal was to get the information about the virus to the people who needed it most, without making them feel targeted,” Alberda said.

“We released flyers using the information the CDC gave us, and then we asked LGBTQ+ community groups if the information was enough or if more specific messaging was needed,” Alberda

How to balance stigmatization versus getting information to people was a key question for William Nettleton, the medical director at the Kalamazoo County Health and Community Services Department. 

“The monkeypox outbreak is stigmatizing with the exotic sounding name of the disease, the physical signs of disease as a rash and that in 2022 the virus began circulating in Europe and the United States primarily amongst men who have sex with men,” Nettleton said in an email. 

But it’s not just men who have sex with men who can get it, and there was frustration with the messaging that made it seem like it was.

“It’s not accurate to say that LGBTQ+ people are the only ones contracting and spreading the disease,” Boker said.

To combat this misinterpretation, Nettleton focused on the physical ways of spreading the disease, rather than focusing on group labels. Like Alberda, he directly connected with high-risk people at LGBTQ resource centers. 

And this paid off.

Nettleton reported more than double the anticipated number of clients when vaccinating people at a community AIDS resource and education services clinic.

Health officials need to continuously educate themselves on the communities they serve, Alberda said

“Making people feel safe in our clinics is a priority, and inclusivity needs to be continually prioritized,” Alberda said. 

Said Nettleton: “Trusted messengers matter. To reach a specific population, it is always best public health practice to engage and work with members of that population.”

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