ACT UP Dublin activist Thomas Strong shares his experience with monkeypox

Activist Thomas Strong decided to open up about his experience with monkeypox to help raise awareness and fight stigma.

A portrait of Thomas Strong, who detailed his experience with monkeypox on social media.
Image: Via Facebook - Thomas Strong

It was on July 11 that ACT UP Dublin activist Thomas Strong first thought that the “blemishes” he could spot on his left hand might be linked to monkeypox. Right after the realisation struck him, he contacted his HIV team at St.Vincent’s University Hospital and got tested the very next day. By July 13, he had a confirmed diagnosis of monkeypox.

Living with HIV and being an activist with ACT UP Dublin, Strong is aware of how being open and vocal about one’s own experiences can have an impact on making things seem less frightening and how it helps to normalise them. He thus decided to detail his experience with monkeypox in a social media post.

When GCN asked him about what prompted him to share his experience with monkeypox, Thomas Strong said: “I was extremely reticent. The word ‘monkeypox’ itself just sounds slightly freaky. Although now, three weeks later as it gets said more and more, it seems less exotic and frightening.”

“I decided to share because I attended the forum with MPOWER and they had Stevie, our hot Irish man in Berlin representing the Irish voice, but no one IN Ireland? That felt off to me, but not surprising. Why? People here really have trouble talking about STIs, especially their own.” he added.

Although monkeypox is not a sexually transmitted infection (STI), the virus is most likely spread person-to-person via close physical contact, which makes sexual contact particularly risky, something that has led to misleading reporting on multiple occasions.

Strong went on to tell GCN: “I tend to think that I have a slightly different perspective, informed by my anthropological research and by years of personal experience living with HIV than what people normally hear,” he said. “My aim is to disarm and destigmatise through insouciance — irreverence. Gay men have always comforted each other with tacky, inappropriate humour: this is what we call camp.”

The activist also spoke about the government’s response to the recent outbreak. He felt that the HSE was slow to respond, with their initial guidance targeting populations travelling back and forth to west and central Africa. “But this outbreak is peculiar,” said Strong. “The virus appears to be transmitted almost exclusively in sexual contexts, and it has very efficiently showed up all over the world as a result. HSE needed to have appropriate advice targeting gay and bi men immediately”.

Talking about monkeypox vaccination, he commented: “The vaccine supply is low, yes. The problem with vaccine discourse is that it almost by definition excludes patients dealing with the disease right now — like I am. What happens is that we start to feel like a write-off: ah well, they’re hopeless.”

When asked about the protocol for isolation when diagnosed with monkeypox. Strong went on to say: “I was advised to stay in isolation until I was cleared by my clinician. The protocol isn’t clear to me. Officially and most commonly we are told: until all the ‘pustules,’ or ‘lesions,’ or ‘blisters,’ or ‘pox’ (take your pick) have formed scabs, the scabs have fallen off, the skin underneath has healed. What does ‘healed’ mean? There is some ambiguity here that is unnerving”.

He added: “I’ve been isolated for three weeks. I was escorted to the hospital yesterday in a special ambulance kitted out for infectious disease — the guys attending me in full PPE, which, I suppose is totally correct: the problem is that being treated like a piece of plutonium is depressing — in order for the doctor to say whether I was free to leave isolation. I’ve been sending daily high-definition photos of my lesions.”


When asked about symptoms, he explained “You feel sick for a few days probably, and then the lesions start. These are actually traumatising and they suck. (I was in extreme pain).” He also detailed that after those initial days the symptoms get better and that he was “just waiting for these stupid lesions to dry up and fall off.”

“You’ll be grand chicken.” was his encouragement to whoever is currently dealing with monkeypox and might be scared of what is to come. He also shared how he was pleasantly surprised by the fact that the response from other people to monkeypox seems to be far less stigmatising than initially anticipated.

“I’m not getting nearly as much stigma as I do for HIV. Guys on the apps are like, ‘hurry up and get out of isolation.’ So I don’t think the stigma is going to be like HIV — at least not from gay men.” he said.

Activist Thomas Strong then concluded this account of his experience with monkeypox by pointing out that there are still some questions that need to be answered. “The number one thing we need to know is: does infection afford immunity?” and also “Can you serosort with monkeypox the way we did for HIV?”

The latest information on monkeypox provided by the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) reported that there are currently 97 confirmed cases of monkeypox in Ireland, as detailed in their weekly report. Last month, monkeypox was declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organisation (WHO), raising it to the highest level of risk. Today, Monday, August 8, the GHN has issued a statement, urging the  Irish Government to speed up the monkeypox vaccine rollout.

If you would like to have more information about monkeypox, you can access the resources shared by MPOWER, Man2Man and the HSE or watch the community discussion featuring experts and people living with the virus.

© 2022 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

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