There is an application for that

The wave of monkeypox (also known as MPV) infections has not completely abated, but transmission levels are starting to drop after a spike in cases over the summer. This is thanks to a concerted effort by health officials, healthcare providers, and LGBTQ+ leaders who saw that their community bore the brunt of the infection and took immediate action. If cases continue to drop, we will soon have one less viral outbreak to fear.

So how was the largely gay-led VPD prevention effort so successful even as the country continued to battle COVID? Well, it’s instructive to look at what worked. Case in point: the online outreach conducted over the summer by Seattle doctor Oviea Akpotaire, who was surprised to find himself in a position to educate the public via Instagram and Grindr.

Dr. Akpotaire didn’t expect to go viral, so to speak. “I have a background in gastroenterology,” he said when reached by phone, noting that infectious diseases were not his specialty. He started hearing about MPV in June, and by the end of the month, members of his group of friends were starting to be diagnosed. At the time, information was hard to come by. Misinformation and speculation abounded. One thing was certain: infections could be extremely painful and people were scared.

Vaccines are now much more widely available, but at the start of the outbreak they were so limited that King County Public Health considered only the most at-risk members of the population eligible.

“The fear and the lack of information really made me try to figure out what’s going on and how can I protect myself, my partner, my friends,” he says.

As a doctor, Akpotaire was able to consult with colleagues and read scientific literature that his other friends found difficult to read. When he heard that some doctors were traveling to Vancouver to get their shots, he thought, “Huh, there’s no information on how to do this in Seattle… We can’t be the only ones.” asking us what to do.

As Americans waited for more doses to arrive, Akpotaire unlocked his former private Instagram account to provide public guidance. His articles about traveling to Vancouver to get vaccinated attracted many more questions about the effectiveness, dosage and interactions of the vaccine, so he began to read more literature in order to answer them for the most as many people as possible.

“I’m not a famous person on Insta,” he says. “I have less than 1,500 subscribers. I knew my voice couldn’t go that far, but it was also important to get as many people vaccinated as possible.”

He turned screenshots of his Instagram broadcast into profile photos on Grindr and used the app’s “boost” feature to boost their visibility. For $10 an hour, he could make sure his MPV footage was visible to a wider range of users, which he says generated 400 views and nearly 200 one-on-one conversations.

This awareness also caught the attention of other healthcare professionals, who began collaborating on a database (and later a website) where patients can find their nearest vaccination location.

As Akpotaire and his colleagues worked to connect patients to clinics, more information became available about the outbreak:

  • It is mainly transmitted by direct and prolonged skin-to-skin contact, mainly in a sexual context.
  • The most recent cases have overwhelmingly affected men who have sex with men
  • There are two monkeypox vaccines, and they are safe and effective when administered appropriately.

But some knowledge gaps remain. In particular, there is a lack of data regarding possible interactions between MPV and COVID vaccines. The CDC recommends that vaccinations not be delayed during an outbreak, but otherwise patients may want to wait four weeks between vaccinations just to be safe.

Either way, Akpotaire now answers fewer questions than when infections were at their peak, and he plans to dive deeper into infectious disease research — after taking a vacation.

“I had very different summer plans,” he says. “I was planning on traveling and having no care in the world, then monkey pox got in the way.”

But, he hastens to add, doing this work was urgent. As cases of VPD increased, he felt the echoes of the COVID and HIV epidemics, and he was happy to take on the role of educator if it meant preventing the spread of another virus. “It hit so close to home,” he says. “It is important.”

If you would like to get vaccinated against MPV in King County, visit the Ministry of Health website or visit the Sea Mar Clinic website.

About Herbert L. Leonard

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