Alberta's monkeypox vaccination rate increases as more cities offer shots
Eligible Albertans can now get vaccinated against monkeypox in nine cities across the province.
The vaccines were made available in Calgary and Edmonton at the end of July, but are now also offered in Edson, Fort McMurray, Grande Prairie, Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, Red Deer and St. Paul.
Alberta Health says 2,213 Albertans have signed up to receive a monkeypox vaccination so far, and, as of Thursday, 1,498 doses have been administered.
The vast majority of vaccinations have taken place in Alberta’s two largest cities with 513 doses in Edmonton and 726 in Calgary, according to Alberta Health.
Alberta has confirmed 19 cases of the virus so far, well below provinces like Ontario and Quebec which have 478 and 425 cases respectively.
Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious disease expert with the University of Alberta, says while the risk is low, she’s encouraged by the uptake of the vaccine so far.
"We should be able to prevent infection fairly effectively by administering vaccines to people before they're in contact with the virus," she said.
"In doing so, you're protecting the individual and you're also protecting the community.”
Albertans are ellibigble to get a monkeypox vaccination if they are 18 years and older and:
- Transgender, cisgender or two-spirit individuals who self-identify as belonging to the gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men (gbMSM) community, and who meet at least one of the following three criteria:
- Have received a recent (in the last 6 months) diagnosis of a sexually transmitted infection;
- Are planning to have, or in the past 90 days had, sex outside of a mutually monogamous relationship; or
- Have attended venues for sexual contact within the past 90 days (for example bath houses, sex clubs) or may be planning to, or who work/volunteer in these settings.
- Any sexual contacts of the individuals described above, and
- Staff and volunteers in a social setting or venue or event where sexual activities between men (individuals described above) may take place.
ALBERTA HEALTH'S VACCINATION STRATEGY
To date, the majority of Monkeypox cases have occurred in men who have sex with other men.
It has resulted in Alberta Health recently changing its vaccination strategy to offer pre-exposure shots to certain groups of sexually active gay and bisexual men.
Saxinger emphasizes, however, that the monkeypox virus can be spread to anyone through physical contact.
"In past outbreaks, it was actually spread dominantly to people who worked with animals who are infected with the virus, specifically to veterinarians and children who are playing with pet prairie dogs," she said.
"This is not a ‘men who have sex with men’ specific virus, that is just the community in which it's spreading right now and that's the community where efforts really need to be focused to try to contain it before it spreads further."
REMOVING THE STIGMA
The decision to get vaccinated for Monkeypox was an important one for Michael Connolly, who received his first dose a week ago.
As a local member of the gay community, he says it was important to do his part, but to also realize that the virus does not discriminate based on sexual orientation.
"Anyone could be affected with monkeypox and it doesn't necessarily take sexual contact, so that's part of the stigma – as you see a lot of people attacking the population of men who have sex with men," Connolly said.
"It's very different from HIV or AIDS, and we should not think that it's the exact same or that it spreads in the same way. We need to be cautious.”
Connolly notes that his experience was positive with Alberta Health Services as staff members were kind and understanding, but others are still encouraging the provinces to develop a more inclusive approach to the vaccine.
Dr. Kristopher Wells is an associate professor and Canada Research Chair for the Public Understanding of Sexual and Gender Minority Youth at MacEwan University in Edmonton.
He says the Alberta government must do more work to change its messaging around the monkeypox vaccine by better communicating with members of the LGBTQ community.
"The communication has a very demoralizing and judgmental tone to it," said Wells.
"It's certainly not sex positive, it actually reinforces a lot of the unfortunate stereotypes that people have about gay men being hyper sexualized and non-monogamous. I think it creates this false dichotomy within the community of what constitutes a ‘good gay’ and a ‘bad gay.’”
Wells adds that the criteria for the vaccine should be written differently with more of an open and inclusive fashion to reach as many people as possible who wish to get vaccinated.
He also mentioned that the process of receiving the vaccine involves giving health-care workers a great deal of personal information, which may prompt LGBTQ community members to avoid getting the shot entirely.
"We know right away, perhaps those who are the most at risk for Monkeypox are not going to step forward and get vaccinated because they don't want to risk their confidentiality, and they want to ensure their anonymity," said Wells.
"We have to be mindful of this kind of messaging and we want to be careful that we're not reinforcing outdated stereotypes and doing more harm to the LGBTQ community in terms of societal acceptance and awareness and inclusion."
Alberta Health has confirmed it will be working with community-based organizations such as Calgary Pride to increase outreach to Monkeypox during celebrations that take place Aug. 26 to Sept. 5.
WHAT IS MONKEYPOX?
According to the American Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, Monkeypox is a rare disease which was first found in the rainforests of West and Central Africa.
The West Africa Strain has a one to three per cent death rate, while the Central African strain has about a 10 per cent death rate.
Despite its name, monkeypox is actually a misnomer, since it most commonly infects small African mammals and rodents. The virus first got its name in 1957 when two outbreaks of a pox-like disease were discovered in crab-eating macaques that were being used for research purposes.
The virus is primarily spread through respiratory droplets, though transmission is generally low. Symptoms include muscle aches, fever, headaches, pox-like rashes and swollen lymph nodes.
In May 2022, new cases of monkeypox began spreading within Europe and North America, but the infection is a milder form of smallpox that has seen a gradual increase in cases over the last decade.
Monkeypox is most commonly spread between humans and animals via close contact, touching sores or bodily fluids, touching belongings that have made contact with sores, or eating infected meat.
The virus is able to be resolved in most cases on its own within two to four weeks, but there is no proven cure or treatment regimen.
According to the National Advisory Committee on Immunization, the monkeypox vaccine is a variation of the smallpox vaccine which is to be taken in two doses one month apart.
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