Leading social development expert says that the current discussion about the source of monkeypox infections is leading to both homophobic and xenophobic discourse as the Department of Disease Control mulls who to target with vaccines against the disease and if they will come to get them.

On Friday, Thailand revealed that the country’s fourth confirmed case of monkeypox was a woman. However, as the government continues its response of heightened surveillance, there are increasing concerns that the threat posed by the disease in stigmatising key communities may be ultimately more dangerous for the kingdom than the threat from the disease itself. 

Speaking to reporters on Friday, Dr Opas Karnkawinpong confirmed the first case of Monkeypox in a 22-year-old Thai woman who frequented entertainment venues in Bangkok popular with foreigners. The top official revealed that authorities increasingly see the disease as a ‘sensitive’ issue which is also impacting who to target with vaccines when they arrive from the end of August while LGBTQ activists warn that reporting by the media on the disease could be prejudicial to the vulnerable community while another expert also warned of an increasingly xenophobic discourse.

Dr Opas Karnkawinpong of the Department of Disease Control at the Ministry of Public Health has urged Thai people who regularly associate with foreigners at venues that officials deem to be at higher risk for the monkeypox disease, to be careful and avoid sexual encounters with strangers due to a lack of knowledge the person’s medical history or behaviour in such situations.

The top official was commenting after it emerged on Friday that the fourth case of monkeypox was confirmed the day before in a 22-year-old woman who was admitted to hospital on Wednesday suffering from blisters on her body and attendant symptoms from the disease against which authorities in Thailand have launched a heightened surveillance programme while urging the public to stay calm as the disease is not a serious one and is difficult to contract, requiring intimate physical contact.

Twenty-two-year-old woman with roommates, a regular at Bangkok hotspots popular with foreigners

The twenty-two-year old woman is believed to have been living with two roommates in Chonburi where the Office of Disease Prevention and Control in the province has been tasked with tracking down her interactions and movements including with foreign men as well as her two roommates who were immediately deemed as high-risk contacts.

It is understood that the woman visited venues popular with foreign men in Bangkok at least once a week with officials following up on at least two high-risk exposures.

The woman is understood to have continued frequenting such venues and interacting with her Thai and foreign acquaintances even after July 29th last when she first began to experience symptoms of the disease including a high fever.

Blisters first appeared on Saturday, July 30th and spread all over her body including her genitalia until she was admitted to a hospital in Samut Prakan on Wednesday, August 3rd.

Fourth monkeypox patient sent to a specialist facility in Nonthaburi for treating infectious diseases

Once a laboratory test for the disease came back positive on Thursday, August 4th, she was sent to the Bamrasnaradura Institute operated by the Department of Disease Control, a specialist facility in Nonthaburi for contagious disease treatment.

The woman’s infection is the fourth confirmed case of monkeypox in Thailand and the first involving a woman following the first case confirmed in Phuket on July 21st involving a Nigerian national, a homosexual Thai man on July 28th and a German national with a Thai wife who told officials that he was neither gay nor bisexual after his infection was confirmed on August 3rd.

Girlfriend of German tourist infected with monkeypox tests negative in Phuket for the virus infection
Second case of monkeypox in Bangkok identified in a 47-year-old who had sex with foreign men

Speaking to reporters on Friday, Dr Opas explained that officials in the country are increasingly concerned about the sensitive nature of the challenge facing them as they target those most at risk from the disease which even the World Health Organisation (WHO)’s Chief, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has indicated, appears to be disproportionately impacting younger men who have sex with other men.

Government plan to target vaccines at key groups to prevent any fatality, runs into sensitivity concerns

The top Thai medical official was commenting on plans by the government to import 1,000 doses of a vaccine and an antiviral drug, Tecovirimat, which is an effective treatment for monkeypox in an effort by authorities to make sure, at least, that no one in Thailand dies from the disease which is highly unlikely in any event.

There have only been three deaths documented so far from the disease which has spread to 28,220 people worldwide with 500 cases being reported daily as it now extends to 88 countries with 81 of these, before this outbreak, never having had a case before.

These are mostly countries outside of Africa including western and European countries which are now among those with the most infections starting with the United States on 6,617 cases, Spain with 4,806 cases, Germany on 2,781, Britain on 2,672 and France with 2,239 confirmed cases. 

Dr Opas was explaining his department’s priorities for distributing the vaccines which are due to be delivered by the end of August and the treatment doses which his ministry has not decided upon yet.

Disease Control boss explains that monkeypox is a ‘sensitive issue’ as LGBTQ+ groups express concerns about media reporting of the disease to the public 

Frontline medical staff are an obvious choice but there is another suggestion that bisexual men should be targeted first although the Department of Disease Control boss indicated that such a policy may be difficult to pursue in respect of many groups with growing fears of a stigma developing surrounding the monkeypox disease which some experts say may be infinitely more dangerous than the threat from the disease itself.

‘Monkeypox is a sensitive issue. We are not sure if (they) will come to get the vaccine,’ he explained.

Over the weekend, gay rights and LGBTQ+ activists have warned that the disease and the reporting of it could give rise to more pronounced discrimination and prejudice against their already vulnerable community.

One activist, Chatchai Emraja, who is campaigning for the legalisation of same-sex relationships in Thailand, urged the media to focus its reports on medical information and recommendations for preventing its spread.

Current discourse on monkeypox may be both homophobic and xenophobic warns leading social development expert at top Thai institute

‘Some media start to label LGBTQ+ people and link them with the spread of monkeypox disease, leading to a much easier target of hatred,’ he explained.

At the same time, Professor Jaray Singhakowintra who works with the School of Social Development and Strategic Management at the National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA) made a similar pronouncement but also extended it to foreigners in Thailand warning that discussions on the disease can easily lead to both homophobic and xenophobic behaviour and thinking.

‘Instead of trying to make society understand how to prevent or treat monkeypox, we are reproducing homophobic and xenophobic discourse by blaming certain groups as the source,’ he warned.

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Further reading:

Girlfriend of German tourist infected with monkeypox tests negative in Phuket for the virus infection

Second case of monkeypox in Bangkok identified in a 47-year-old who had sex with foreign men

Mysterious African monkeypox sufferer arrested after illegally crossing the border into Cambodia

Monkeypox case in Thailand confirmed in transit passenger at Suvarnabhumi Airport last week

Thailand Pass to be used in Monkeypox screening at airports with new RT-PCR test for the disease