Then came some more unwelcome news: Monkeypox, a rare viral illness that causes pus-filled rashes, had appeared in more than a dozen countries in the region.
“My first reaction was: Another plague coming to us? What’s next?” said Adrián Sanjosé, 38, from Spain, as he sat at Rome’s Fiumicino airport waiting to fly to his home in London. “We have a pandemic, a war, what else?”
But for some people, with a threshold for worry already tested by the coronavirus, initial bewilderment about a disease few had heard of before its reported appearance in Europe this month quickly faded into a sense of weary fatalism.
“I’m trying to be positive and not think about it,” Sourena Naji, a 27-year-old bartender in east London, said Tuesday. “I was like: not again.”
Health experts say monkeypox is unlikely to wreak the same kind of havoc as COVID-19, which has killed millions, infected more than half a billion people and ravaged the world’s economy.
Human-to-human transmission of monkeypox, which is endemic to West and Central Africa and typically caught by coming into close contact with infected animals, is rare but happening through close physical contact, according to the World Health Organization. The symptoms include fever, a sore throat, coughing, fatigue, body aches and the distinctive rash.
Still, with more than 200 confirmed cases as of this week in Europe and dozens more suspected, health officials and organizations say they expect reports of the virus to rise and are working to contain its spread.
But while awareness about the effect of viral outbreaks on daily life has become heightened during the more than two years of the coronavirus pandemic, many people are finding it difficult to be overly concerned about the new virus — at least for now.
“We don’t want to believe it’s happening again,” said Maria Revilla, 34, a Spanish architect. “Maybe we are unconscious.”
As of Wednesday, Britain had reported 71 cases of monkeypox, and another 133 were confirmed across the European Union, according to data project Global.health. In the United States, officials had confirmed two cases and were evaluating six other patients.
“I don’t care for worrying much more at the moment,” said Tim Pearce, a business owner in London. “I’ll worry when there’s a few hundred cases.”
Although cases appear to be rising quickly, it is unclear whether that points to daily growth or the detection of a virus already in circulation for some weeks, said professor Francois Balloux, director of the University College London Genetics Institute.
“It might eventually fizzle out, but there’s a chance it might not,” he said. “Whatever happens, it’s clear that it’s not a repeat of the COVID pandemic.” He added that nations already had stockpiles of smallpox vaccines, which have some side effects but are effective against the typically much milder monkeypox. “At this stage we definitely don’t expect a completely uncontrolled outbreak.”
The WHO considers monkeypox to be endemic in a dozen African countries and has recorded outbreaks since last year in Nigeria, Cameroon, Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. “We obviously have a Western-centric view,” said Balloux of the clusters emerging in Europe.
Health authorities in Europe said that a high share of their cases had been reported among gay or bisexual men, and the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control recommended raising awareness “especially among men who have sex with other men that engage in casual sex or who have multiple sexual partners.”
Alex Sparrowhawk, a representative for the Terrence Higgins Trust, a British charity that provides services relating to HIV and sexual health, said the organization had received queries about the outbreak and was working to alert those who might be concerned and let them know they could seek care if needed. People on the whole were more attuned to how viruses functioned because of the coronavirus pandemic, he added.
“We’ve got an opportunity with this outbreak to put transmission under control, and I think we have to seize that,” he said, but stressed the importance of avoiding any shaming.
On Sunday UNAIDS, the United Nations AIDS-fighting agency, said some of the coverage of monkeypox cases reinforced homophobic stereotypes, and urged the news media, governments and communities to avoid stigmatizing particular groups of people, reiterating that the disease could affect anyone.
LGBTQ associations around Europe have urged authorities to make clear the virus has nothing to do with one’s sexuality.
Linking a disease with a group “creates a stigma, which, if it becomes established, is very difficult to combat,” FELGTBI+, a Spanish nonprofit, wrote in a statement, adding that misinformation “on one hand stigmatizes vulnerable groups and, on the other, it generates a false sense of invulnerability in the rest of the population.”
Authorities are examining a Pride event in Spain’s Canary Islands and some other mass gatherings around Europe as potential sources of the virus’s spread. But health experts emphasize that transmission is likely to be linked to the size of crowds attending such events and not to the sexual orientation of the people attending them.
“It is completely accidental that this thing spread among men having sex with men,” Massimo Galli, a leading virus expert in Milan, told Italian news media. “It is not a preference of the virus.”
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Naji, who identifies as gay and moved from Tehran, Iran, to London seven months ago, said he hoped the spread of the virus did not encourage homophobia. “I was really looking forward to my first Pride, and I hope they don’t cancel it,” he said, of an event in Brighton in August.
Anjali Bourriaud, 21, a French student living in England, said she worried about misinformation surrounding the new outbreak given how recent it was, adding that she had heard the spread of monkeypox being likened to “a new AIDS crisis.”
“It is quite stressful to think a new virus is going around and the people it’s going to affect and the potential stigma they’re going to face,” she said.
But for some people going about lives with the experience of the coronavirus still high in their minds, a monkeypox outbreak does not seem worth stressing about.
“We have already done one pandemic — it can’t be much worse,” said Kathryn Brand, 21, an editorial assistant from London, adding that the fact that useful vaccines are already available reassured her. “If we have done it with COVID, we can do this again.”