On July 23, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Georgia) posted a question on Twitter about monkeypox. The real question, though, is what kind of answer she was looking for when she posed such a question. Her tweet read, “If monkeypox is a sexually transmitted disease, why are kids getting it,” and included a video featuring Rochelle Walensky, MD, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
The video was a clip of Walensky’s Washington Post Live interview that I covered for Forbes earlier today where Walensky mentioned that there have now been two cases of children in the U.S. testing positive for the monkeypox virus. This revelation then provided Taylor Greene a launching pad for her tweet question.
While it’s not clear what answer Taylor Greene may have been looking for, the correct answer would be that monkeypox is not a “sexually transmitted disease” like syphilis or gonorrhea. Telling your significant other that you caught gonorrhea from someone while insisting that you did not have sex with that person might elicit a “Whatcha talkin bout” skeptical look. The same shouldn’t necessarily be true with the monkeypox virus. There are plenty of non-sexual ways of catching the virus. The World Health Organization (WHO) clearly states on its website that “Human-to-human transmission can result from close contact with respiratory secretions, skin lesions of an infected person or recently contaminated objects. Transmission via droplet respiratory particles usually requires prolonged face-to-face contact, which puts health workers, household members and other close contacts of active cases at greater risk.”
Humans aren’t the only ones who can spread the virus to you. Other animals can do so as well via “direct contact with the blood, bodily fluids, or cutaneous or mucosal lesions of infected animals,” according to the WHO. So another risk could be spending too much time participating in group hugs with rope squirrels, tree squirrels, Gambian pouched rats, dormice, monkeys, or any other animal carrying the monkeypox virus.
Again none of these aforementioned transmission possibilities require any type of sexual contact. In fact, prior to this current monkeypox outbreak, most of the documented human monkeypox cases since the first one in 1971 did not seem to arise from sexual contact with an infected person.
All of this doesn’t mean that monkeypox virus transmission can’t occur during sex. That’s because prolonged close physical contact is typically part of having sex. You don’t tend to have sex with someone else and then hope to someday meet him or her in person. Lots of different things can happen throughout the close physical contact involved in sex such as breathing in the other person’s respiratory droplets or accidentally touching the other person’s lesions.
Calling anything a sexually transmitted disease can have some heavy duty connotations. That’s why you may not tell other people that you’ve had a sexually transmitted infection when you ended up catching a cold or the flu during sex. Labeling monkeypox a “sexually transmitted disease” right now is probably is probably a premature declaration. Sure testing has found monkeypox virus DNA in semen and stool, as I’ve covered for Forbes. But finding monkeypox DNA in certain body fluids can be like finding One Direction’s clothes on stage. It’s not the same as finding the live version. The DNA alone can’t cause infections without the rest of the virus just like One Direction’s clothes alone can’t sing and dance. More studies are needed to determine if the the virus can indeed be transmitted through body fluids that a specifically exchanged during sex.
One of the consequences of calling monkeypox a sexually transmitted disease has been leading folks to believe that they can’t catch the virus as long as they don’t have sex with someone infected. In fact, in her July 22 article for Forbes, Victoria Forster, PhD, pointed out that some headlines and public health messaging may have inadvertently suggested that the only folks at risk for monkeypox are men who have sex with men, which, of course, is simply not true. Forster quoted Chloe Orkin, MD, PhD, physician and Professor of HIV/AIDS medicine at Queen Mary University in London, as emphasizing that it is “important not to make people think this is a disease that can only be contracted by gay and bisexual men, because that’s not the case.”
So the risk of Taylor Greene’s Twitter question without any further elaboration or qualification is that it may further the misconception that monkeypox is somehow only a threat to and from a particularly community. This certainly wasn’t the first time that Taylor Greene has rendered her opinions about infectious disease issues. For example, she’s used the term “medical brown shirts” to describe the Covid-19 vaccination campaign while presumably not referring to UPS, wondered why schools haven’t been closed to prevent cancer after Covid-19 led to school closures, claimed that the CDC doesn’t recommend four polio shots when, in fact, they do, and on June 4, 2021, sent a letter to U.S. President Joe Biden demanding answers about Covid-19 by June 31, 2021. Of course, June 31, 2021, has happened yet, so perhaps there’s still time for Biden to respond.