Massachusetts Monkeypox numbers up nearly 60 percent

BOSTON — The Massachusetts Department of Public Health released its latest Monkeypox numbers Thursday — adding 18 more cases to an outbreak which began with a single case in May.

The total number of cases recorded in the Commonwealth thus far: 49. The increase over last week’s 31 cases represents a nearly 60 percent rise.

In terms of the big picture, Massachusetts now ranks seventh in the U.S. for total Monkeypox cases — behind California, New York, Illinois, the District of Columbia, Florida and Georgia.

The CDC reports 1,053 total Monkeypox cases in the U.S. as of July 13. That’s nearly ten times the number of Monkeypox cases reported this year in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country used to seeing the virus.

Overall, the CDC has tallied more than 11,000 Monkeypox cases worldwide this year, in 65 different countries.

“I don’t think this is going to become a pandemic,” said Kevin Ard, MD, MPH, Director of the Sexual Health Clinic at Massachusetts General Hospital. “But certainly we are seeing increasing numbers of cases in Massachusetts and around the country and the world.”

Ard said it’s unclear why the virus is spreading in a manner in which it typically doesn’t.

“We still don’t know if there’s something different about the virus that is also contributing to the spread,” he said.

One possibility is a mutational change — something all viruses are capable of.

But Monkeypox is a DNA virus — and double-stranded, at that. Typically, DNA viruses mutate more slowly than RNA viruses, because they have the ability to “proof-read” for mistakes during replication.

“I think it is now spreading in a social and a sexual network in which it previously was not spreading or known to be spreading,” Ard said. “And that may be one reason we’re seeing an increasing number of cases around the world.”

But, Ard stressed it’s important not to stigmatize the Monkeypox outbreak as a “gay disease.”

“We are seeing most cases among gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with other men,” he said. “But, of course, anyone can acquire this infection.”

Jayson Duley knows all about illness stigmatization.

Twenty-one years ago, he was diagnosed with HIV — the virus that causes AIDS.

At that point, HIV was well-entrenched in the overall population, but its reputation as a “gay affliction” persisted.

“Stigmatization is a challenge for any sort of emerging disease, I think,” Duley said.

With Monkeypox, Duley sees not only a parallel with HIV — but a pitfall.

“It does allow, I think, some folks to think ‘well that’s not going to affect me’ when it possibly could,” he said.

Duley said the gay community seems very aware of the Monkeypox risk but is suffering, like so many others, from infectious disease fatigue.

“I think the community is grappling with it,” he said. “How is it transmitted, how easily is it transmitted? But I think after two-plus years of [COVID-19] now, people want to go out and have fun and enjoy their lives and go on vacation. So I think the gay community, like everybody else, is trying to live their lives but also is conscious of [COVID-19] and now Monkeypox.”

Duley said it is science that has kept him living with HIV — once a death-sentence of a virus — and he sees proof that with Monkeypox, the gay community is relying on science, as well.

“There are vaccines that are available in small quantities right now.” Duley said. “And they’re being snapped up very quickly.”

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