Hundreds of people from Toronto’s LGTBQ community have lined up in the past few days for a vaccine that offers protection against monkeypox, a virus spreading around the globe.
But many had to queue for hours or be redirected to larger clinics, and there are concerns about demand outpacing supply, health advocates from the community said.
The federal government would not disclose the current supply of Imvamune, which is a smallpox vaccine as monkeypox is in the same family. It told the Star that a mass vaccination campaign is not currently needed but the Public Health Agency of Canada is discussing the “clinical practice approaches” with chief medical officers of health.
The province said there is a “limited supply” of the vaccine from PHAC and it is working with PHAC to secure more doses. Until then, it’s using a “a ring vaccination approach,” using a single shot of the vaccine in locations with confirmed cases.
Anyone can spread monkeypox, regardless of sexual orientation, public health has emphasized. The current outbreak has seen gay and bisexual men impacted.
The willingness of the community to access protection as soon as possible is a testament to the strong relationship between LGBTQ health services and the people they serve — but there’s concerns the lines could be a deterrent.
“The enthusiastic response is a real testament to the relationships our community has with AIDS Service Organizations and other community partners like bathhouses: people are hearing about (monkeypox) and the vaccine from sources we know and trust,” said Graeme Lamb, a union steward at Steamworks Baths in the Gay Village.
However, when Lamb has spoken to those on the fence about the shot, that’s “overwhelmingly because they’re worried about having to wait in line for several hours without knowing for sure that a dose will be available,” he said.
Many who tried to access the vaccine this past weekend at community hubs, like bathhouses, waited in line for at least two hours or were redirected to larger clinics downtown, said Lamb. Several who received the shot also contacted the Star to say they had waited at least an hour to get vaccinated.
Over 2,200 doses have been administered in the city, Toronto Public Health said.
As of June 20, there have been 210 cases of monkeypox across Canada, and 33 of those cases are in Ontario. Twenty-eight of those cases are in Toronto and all are affecting those identified as men.
Symptoms include swollen lymph nodes and flu-like symptoms, followed by a rash all over the body that presents as raised poxes, according to PHAC.
The virus is primarily spread through contact with bodily fluids and “prolonged face-to-face contact,” according to the public health statement.
On June 17, Toronto Public Health announced that the vaccination effort had expanded; earlier in the month, only workers at the city’s bathhouses were eligible for the shot.
Now eligible are: those who have been in close contact with someone who has had monkeypox; have had two or more sexual partners in the last 21 days (or are planning to); have been diagnosed with chlamydia, gonorrhea or syphilis infection in the past two months; who have attended bathhouses, sex clubs and “other venues for sexual contact” in the past 21 days; have had “anonymous or casual sex” in the past 21 days; or have engaged in sex work (or are planning to).
Current clinics offering the vaccine will be open until Sunday afternoon.
Uptake has been “phenomenal and overwhelming,” said Praney Anand, the executive director of the Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention, a Toronto-based non-profit that provides health and support services for LGBTQ people within racialized communities.
Anand assisted at a vaccine clinic Sunday and said he was hoping to vaccinated about 100 people. They ended up vaccinating 350 men within six hours, he said. People started to line up at 9:30 am, when the clinic opened at 1 pm
The queer community is more attuned to health needs and has stronger relationships and trust with community health-care providers, due to needing to protect the community following the HIV/AIDS outbreak and combat stigma and hate.
“I’m not surprised that so many people are lining up to get the vaccine so quickly, especially with Pride coming up,” he said.
But there’s still a lot of discussion that’s required to address anxiety around monkeypox and vaccine fatigue overall, as well as tackling stigma, he said.
“Gay people, especially gay men, have been stigmatized and targeted because of health-related concerns for decades now,” he said. “It’s such a live, ongoing conversation and we just have to keep an eye out … stay in touch with queer-affirming community health centers for updates.”
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