Monkeypox cases are surging across the globe. As of July 14, there are more than 10,000 confirmed cases in 59 countries that have not historically reported monkeypox, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Scientists are still debating whether or not monkeypox is airborne, but we know for sure that it can be spread through direct contact with bodily fluids or the lesions that are typical of the illness, including contact with clothing or linens that have touched someone’s infectious area. While early data has shown that men who have sex with men have, thus far, been disproportionately affected, it’s worth noting that monkeypox can be transmitted to anyone through any kind of close contact and is not currently classified as an STI, since infection can occur from non-sexual contact.
While the spread of monkeypox is absolutely a cause for concern, the good news is that it’s not fatal for the vast majority of people affected. The World Health Organization reported in June that only one death had been recorded of the 2,103 cases globally that had been reported in the first half of the year. Symptoms can include fever, headache, muscle aches and backache, swollen lymph nodes, chills, exhaustion, and, as you’ve probably seen, small lesions that look like pimples or blisters. Not everyone presents with every symptom, though, and just as with every viral infection, different people can react very differently to the virus.
But data and lists of symptoms don’t necessarily give any insight into what the actual experience is like. As one monkeypox survivor said, the ailment can be painful and isolating—not to mention psychologically taxing. To put a face to the numbers, VICE interviewed Scott McDonald, a 31-year-old London-based cruise ship dancer, who is recovering from monkeypox and was cleared to exit quarantine the day we spoke.
When did you first start hearing about monkeypox?
I first started hearing about monkeypox in May or June. I was still working on the ship. I was seeing news articles about it, and I was like, Oh, not something else... I was just looking forward to my summer freedom—I had been on the ship for six months and was really excited to go to Sitges, which is about half an hour away from Barcelona, for their Pride. It’s this gorgeous seaside town that has loads of gay bars and gay beaches. I was thinking, If it ruins that, that would just be the worst, because I’ve been looking forward to this one thing. I also worked as a nursing assistant in a hospital in intensive care with COVID patients, so I maybe took it a bit more seriously than my friends who just wanted to say, “Hey, can we just enjoy ourselves?” I was aware of it, but not necessarily enough to change my plans. I did go, and I had an amazing time.
Can you describe your general timeline of symptoms?
I was in Sitges from June 9 to 16. Sometime the next week, around Tuesday, I felt slightly under the weather. I wanted to take a nap, and I never usually take naps. I felt a bit of a mild fever. I was looking at more information online, and it was talking about enlarged lymph nodes in the groin. And then I noticed: Oh, actually, there’s something there. I was joking with my friend that I just did [a YouTube squat workout] for the first time ever, so maybe it was, like, I pulled my leg muscle. Because you’re just thinking about everything that it’s not. It’s the same with COVID, where you’re like, Oh, no, it’s just a cold, even though you know that it could be COVID. The average time for people to start seeing symptoms after being exposed to monkeypox is six to 16 days, but [health officials] kept mentioning a rash, and I never got that, so I was like, No, no, it’s fine. I went to see a friend one day and another friend the next day because I had been away from everyone for so long, which was really annoying for contact tracing because I had seen so many people.
When did you decide to get checked out for monkeypox?
I noticed that I had a separate little lump on my anus, and I was like, OK, so I’m gonna get this checked by Sexual Health Services, right? because that could be a number of things, and I’d just been to a big party. But the health service was quite stretched, so I couldn’t get through on the phone until Wednesday. They said that they could bring me in for an urgent appointment on Friday, June 24, so it was still two days away.
At my appointment, they had a look at everything, took a swab directly from the lesion, and then they said that the cases were rising in London, so they had been instructed to treat everything as monkeypox until proven otherwise, in terms of things like herpes, syphilis, and things that usually look similar. They told me to isolate until they had the results, but the results could take three to four business days. It actually ended up being four to five business days, so it took some time.
How did your symptoms develop?
In that time period, I got a spot on my face, on my hand, on my foot, and in places where there wouldn’t usually be spots, like the bottom of my foot and the top of my foot. So then I started to isolate more seriously, and I got the positive result. I just kind of had to ride it out, but by that point, the worst was over. I never got a really bad fever or really bad fatigue or anything like that.
For me, genuinely the worst symptom was the lesions. My first lesions were on my bum, and those were the most painful ones. I couldn't even sit down. It was really painful for several days. I was taking painkillers all day, and then I’d wake up in the night in pain because the painkillers had worn off. But then that wore off, and all these ones that appeared elsewhere just on their own weren’t painful or anything. It was just really kind of frustrating and boring, because you just have to wait for them to heal and then they have to scab, and the scabs have to drop off with new skin formed underneath until you’re deemed not infectious anymore. They looked like little red spots at first, like I had just gotten acne, but then they changed to look more like the characteristic lesions you see in pictures, like a donut shape with white pus in the center. It’s kind of like a Cheerio or Froot Loops, but much smaller—about half a centimeter [in diameter].
When did you get cleared to exit quarantine and how long did it take to get to that point?
I still have slight lesions, and I’ve been told to avoid children under 12 and pregnant women until they’re fully healed. But [health officials] deemed that I can come out of isolation and just cover up. The guidance they sent me for coming out of isolation was that I couldn’t have had any new lesions in the past 48 hours, I had to have no fever for 72 hours, and then all your remaining lesions should be scabbed over. The painful symptoms probably only lasted about seven or eight days, and it’s been about two weeks for me at this point.
Did you experience any symptoms that you didn’t expect to?
Even though the physical symptoms cleared, the mental symptoms stayed in terms of the frustration over something that looks so harmless. It’s literally a spot, and you’re like, That could spread to someone else, and then they’ll have to go through the painful bit that I went through. I had to call my mom and then she couldn’t go to her granddaughter’s birthday because monkeypox poses a higher risk to kids. The mental impact was more than I would have expected from something like this. This was something that carried the shame or the stigma of an STI, but then has to be made public to your friends and family, because you could also pass it on to them.
What would you say to others, especially in the LGBTQ community, who are at risk of monkeypox?
Everyone needs to be keeping up to date with the information, because it’s changing so much. You should know that literally one spot that’s in a weird place could be monkeypox, so everyone should be hyper-aware and getting stuff like that checked out. If we’ve learned anything from AIDS, seeing how that started, and how much damage was done because of stigma, the greatest thing we can do to honor that history is to be responsible and do our research on what to look out for.
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