Richard Swerdlow: Monkeypox

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 (Richard Swerdlow)

San Francisco has declared a local public health emergency and for Richard Swerdlow its like déjà vu all over again.

The line outside the health clinic was long, stretching for blocks along Castro Street. Curious what everyone was lining up for, I stopped to check out the sign on the door. These men were waiting hours to receive a vaccination for Monkeypox virus.

An outbreak of Orthopoxvirus, better known as Monkeypox, was first observed in the UK last May. This virus is spreading rapidly. The United Nations World Health Organization declared Monkeypox a global health emergency, with almost 30,000 cases in 82 countries, including 11,000 in the United States. Monkeypox has now been declared a public health emergency by federal and state health agencies, as well as the San Francisco Department of Public Health.
Of those 546 Monkeypox cases in San Francisco, almost all have been gay or bisexual men. Everyone’s scared. I remember the early days of HIV in the 80's and this feels all too familiar.

But this community has learned from those early days of HIV. I wondered if the guys waiting in line at that Castro clinic know it was founded by the efforts of a previous generation of gay men, who responded to the health, social and political crisis by creating our own health care institutions. Or that the minimal government response to the AIDS epidemic resulted in activist organizations like ACT UP, demanding more action from our government, and volunteer institutions like Shanti or Project Open Hand, supporting one another. As one news website put it, this community has learned to take care of itself when governments won’t.

And the government already has tools to end the spread of this virus. A COVID-style vaccination effort must be rolled out urgently, instead of this lackluster federal response and excuses about "limited supplies." An effective vaccine already exists, and it shouldn't take waiting hours in line to get it.


Monkeypox is not a gay disease or even a new disease. Anyone can catch it, and an effective vaccination campaign will protect all of us. COVID has shown that a rapid early response to a public health emergency can help control an outbreak before it’s too late.

Because when it comes to this contagious virus, there is no time to monkey around.

With a Perspective, I'm Richard Swerdlow.

Richard Swerdlow is a San Francisco teacher.