ERG/AOP calls on Government to offer monkeypox vaccines to at-risk groups

Albert Isola, MP, Minister for Health

‘According to reputable sources, the threat of monkeypox (a strain of the smallpox virus) is worrisome in cases of intimate relations. Anybody can get this illness, though in plain language, infection is risky in close body contact situations, especially in sex,’ Equality Rights Group (ERG)/Action on Poverty (AOP) Chair, Felix Alvarez, announced today.

‘The World Health Organisation (WHO) notified of this viral contagion in early May this year and we are gratified by public statements from the GHA that preparations started to be made immediately for the local management of this new health threat.’

‘The situation with respect to Spain, where recent reports speak of around 1,000 active cases of contagion, is also worrying and growing. Total worldwide contagion is estimated currently at 6,000.

‘With a strong wave of Omicron variants predicted for the autumn by various countries, along with seasonal influenza, early effective management of monkeypox must figure in pre-emptive limitation planning.

‘I have therefore written today,’ Mr. Alvarez continued, ‘to the Minister for Health, Albert Isola, who has responsibility in this area since April this year to consider providing monkeypox vaccines to individuals and groups at risk at the earliest.

‘It’s understood that symptoms of monkeypox may include a possible rash with blisters on the face, hands, feet, eyes, mouth and/or genitals. This can be accompanied by fever, swollen lymph nodes, headaches, aching muscles, and generalised tiredness. Monkeypox can be caught following close physical contact with someone who is showing symptoms. Present information relates that this can also include touching and being face-to-face.

‘As is too often the case, the risk of contagion is often highest in situations of vulnerability and disadvantage. For this very reason, we have asked the Minister of Health, Albert Isola, MP, to advise as to his Ministry’s plans in addressing vulnerable sectors. Britain has already committed to a vaccination programme; and the European Medicines Agency (an EU body) has also said it is currently reviewing the data and is now considering authorising the issuance of a smallpox vaccine to treat monkeypox.

‘The GHA Director General, Professor Patrick Geoghegan, informed the public just over a month ago on 1st June of the emergence of the first case of monkeypox contagion in Gibraltar involving a Spanish national, and took the opportunity to make a statement regarding procedures which were put in place thenceforth. Simultaneously, the Director of Public Health (locum), Dr. Jackie Hyland, has also stated that monkeypox is a ‘self-limiting illness’, adding that hospitalisation is rarely necessary.

‘ERG/AOP understands the need for temperance in making public health announcements. We are, nonetheless, concerned that a played-down response may lead to a reduced perception of seriousness or immediacy. In a scenario where close body contact is a principal vehicle for contagion, sexually active sectors may need to be reached more specifically. Contrast, for example, the upbeat pronouncements of the various health authorities and institutions in the UK and elsewhere.

‘This is by no means a comment to negatively reflect on Dr. Hyland, who merely aims to put perspective on the situation, but a perception garnered from our long experience of dealing with the broad community’s issues that strike us as worthy of note.

‘Additionally, as we have seen from the Covid-19 pandemic, open information is of the utmost importance in containment and treatment. It would be helpful if the GHA were to provide further updates on the monkeypox situation which, hopefully, will remain stable. Even reports of no contagion will be helpful under the circumstances. We acknowledge and welcome that information has been publicised since the start of this viral wave, as we cannot afford to go back in time to previous routine silence on important matters dealing with the community’s health.

‘With regard to monkeypox, avoiding the spread of this disease, which is not limited to men who have sex with men, but must concern the community at large, is of top importance. Nonetheless, because there has been a level of early prevalence detected within LGBT+ communities elsewhere, health experts are signalling the importance of vaccination in this sector.

‘Whilst I have requested the Minister on this point to consider initially addressing at-risk individuals and groups, I trust that subject to any evolving data, delivery will be widened as may prove necessary in accordance with medical assessment of risk. We know only too well that we are no island unto ourselves in this regard; and what’s more, we have also learned from the past that ignorance can unfortunately lead to stigma and discrimination. With early action possible harms can be averted.

‘On a more general note, it would be a step forward if the new Minister for Health were to commit to a policy of regular open six-monthly across-the-board public disclosure reports on the state of community infection and illness prevalence.

‘Lastly, because of the implication to minorities and vulnerable sectors, I have also addressed the matter by copying the Chief Minister and the Minister for Equality, Samantha Sacramento, who I look forward to soon meeting to discuss plans in the pipeline for protective legislation to prohibit conversion therapy in Gibraltar,’ Mr. Alvarez closes.