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Milwaukee health experts and elected officials respond to rising monkeypox cases

A sign announcing monkeypox vaccination is setup
Joe Raedle
Getty Images
A sign announcing monkeypox vaccination is setup

Currently, there are 56 cases of monkeypox in Wisconsin, and 21 of them are in Milwaukee, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. With cases on the rise, Wisconsin is taking its first steps to address the virus, and particularly in Milwaukee, politicians and health experts are collaborating to spread awareness.

"Even though monkeypox has been around for decades, it hasn't been around like this. It's been a relatively rare disease up until this point. It's not like a lot of other diseases where we have decades of experience in thousands and thousands of people getting it to lean upon and to learn from," says Dr. Ben Weston, associate professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin and the county’s chief health policy advisor.

Monkeypox was first discovered in 1958, and it started as an endemic in central and western Africa. What caused cases to appear all over the world is still unclear. Weston says it's similar to the mystery around COVID when it first spread.

So far, the CDC reports that monkeypox is disproportionately affecting LGBTQ+ people and men who have sex with men. While this may be true, Weston says that it can spread to anyone despite a person’s sexual orientation, but people with multiple partners are at greater risk.

He says he would be surprised if the LGBTQ+ community continues to be the core population of monkeypox moving forward.

"It's important to remember that just because monkeypox is in a specific population right now, it doesn't mean it's going to stick within that population. The virus doesn't care who it infects. It will infect whoever it can in whatever way it can... Right now, it seems to be largely through skin-to-skin contact," Weston says.

The transmission of monkeypox includes prolonged contact with respiratory secretions as well. Other symptoms can consist of fevers, headaches and swollen lymph nodes.

Peter Burgelis, Milwaukee's 15th district county supervisor, says given everything that's happened after COVID, ensuring the Milwaukee counties' municipalities are coordinating and collaborating is important.

The last thing that he wants to see is another response similar to the AIDS epidemic in the early 80s, where government inaction really exacerbated the problem.

Now that President Biden declared monkeypox a public health emergency on Aug. 4, additional resources were made available to provide to local health departments.

“Frankly, Milwaukee and Wisconsin are relatively small, but we have a great opportunity now while the outbreak is small to contain it and get as many shots in the arms as possible,” says Burgelis.

The City of Milwaukee Department of Health already offered limited vaccine appointments, which filled up quickly. Last week the department extended the number of appointments and are being scheduled at the Menomonee Valley Drive-Thru Clinic.

In addition to taking the vaccine, leaders say people can take other preventive measures as cases increase. Avoiding close, skin-to-skin contact with anyone with monkeypox, not touching the rash or scabs of a person with monkeypox, and washing your hands after contact with someone sick can reduce infection chances.

“I think targeting the highest risk population for the first doses is the smartest, best way to start making an impact in the spread of monkeypox,” says Burgelis.

Kobe Brown was WUWM's fifth Eric Von fellow.
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