Houston gay man battling monkeypox raises awareness

Wesley Wallace (photos via Facebook)

Wesley Wallace, a 42-year-old gay Houstonian, knew what monkeypox was. He had been following news of an outbreak of the mostly African viral disease that causes skin sores and flu-like symptoms as it spread from Europe to New York – and eventually Texas and Houston in June .

“I knew what it was, I knew I was at risk,” he says. “I tried to get vaccinated, but I couldn’t. I thought I was careful. Clearly, I wasn’t careful enough.

Over the 4th of July weekend, he went to several bars and, while shirtless, hugged and kissed a few men. The following weekend, he started seeing small white bumps under his chin.

“The following Friday I had flu-like symptoms, then I got the test back and it was positive,” Wallace recalled.

Monkeypox has seen an alarming increase in America, especially among men who have sex with men. However, just being in close contact with someone with symptoms — or their clothes or bedding — is enough to transmit the infection. According to Harris County Public Health, as of July 28, there were 71 confirmed cases in the county — a 60% increase from the previous week — and 287 cases across Texas.

On July 27, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended that gay and bisexual men limit their number of sexual partners to protect themselves from monkeypox and help slow transmission of the fast-spreading virus. WHO monkeypox expert Rosamund Lewis says men who have sex with men are currently the group most at risk of infection. About 99% of cases are in men and at least 95% of these patients are men who have sex with men.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus adds: “For men who have sex with men, this includes, for now, reducing your number of sexual partners, reconsidering sex with new partners and exchanging contact details with any new partners to enable follow-up if necessary.”

Still, officials emphasize that monkeypox is not a “gay” disease.

“Monkey pox can infect anyone, regardless of gender or age,” says Kirstin Short, chief of epidemiology for the Houston Health Department, who saw the first case in early June. “In the current outbreak, we are seeing a preponderance of cases among men – some who have recently traveled abroad, but also some who have not.”

For Wallace, the pain was horrible. With lesions inside his mouth and throat, he could not eat or swallow without using a gargle and medicated spray. He also took prescription painkillers and antibiotics, and he also developed strep throat.

The antiviral Tecovirimat (TPOXX), used to treat smallpox, was confirmed in May by the World Health Organization to be effective against severe cases of monkeypox. But it’s only available through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and Wallace couldn’t get it here.

Similarly, monkeypox vaccines are currently only available through the CDC. There are two US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-licensed vaccines available to prevent monkeypox infection – JYNNEOS (also known as Imvamune or Imvanex) and ACAM2000. In the United States, supply of JYNNEOS is currently limited, although more are expected in the coming weeks and months. There is a sufficient supply of ACAM2000. However, this vaccine should not be used in people with health conditions such as a weakened immune system, skin conditions such as atopic dermatitis/eczema, or pregnancy.

Harris County and the city of Houston have received about 5,324 doses of monkeypox vaccine from the CDC as of July 26, but are saving those doses for those who are immunocompromised or who have been exposed to the virus. (If given directly after exposure, it may be effective in reducing symptoms. Harris County and the City of Houston on July 28 requested at least 5,000 additional vaccine doses. Just the day before, the FDA announced that 786,000 doses of Bavarian Nordic’s monkeypox vaccine had been made available in the United States.

“I know people who have gone to Canada to get vaccinated,” Wallace says, adding that he started sharing his story on social media to raise awareness about the virus. “I made my case public because I wanted others to see that it was not a death sentence. The pain can be awful and the isolation almost worse, but they need to know there is hope.

Wallace is undergoing a month of prescribed quarantine, but he thinks his lesions will heal within a week and he will at least be able to leave his house again.

“My advice is not to panic,” he says. “But please give this disease the attention and vigilance it needs. You can leave; just maybe not kissing and hugging others. And don’t give up trying to get vaccinated.

On July 29, Houston/Harris County received the first of three emergency shipments of 16,870 doses of JYNNEOS. Check www.houstonhealth.org or call the department’s call center at 832-393-4220 or 832-927-0707 for immunization appointment information.

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