Credit: Chicago Department of Public Health

CHICAGO — Monkeypox has been declared a public health emergency, Chicago has been an epicenter for the United States’ breakout and hundreds of cases have been diagnosed here — but shots are lagging in a city already struggling with vaccination equity.

Monkeypox is a disease that is rarely fatal but can cause a painful and infectious rash. It’s been around for decades, but a recent outbreak has led to more than 26,000 cases being diagnosed worldwide. Illinois has seen the third-most number of diagnosed cases out of any state, with 547 found here so far, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The bulk of Illinois’ cases have come from Chicago: The city has had 478 confirmed cases of monkeypox — also known as MPV — as of Thursday, and health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady has previously said many cases are likely going unreported in the city and throughout the world.

Officials are urging Chicagoans to get tested, get educated on monkeypox, spread awareness and take safety steps if they think they have the virus. They’ve also pushed for people to get vaccinated against monkeypox if they are in a group that’s more at risk to being exposed to the virus — but the lack of doses means appointments have been highly sought-after, with many people struggling to find one.

Because of that, Chicago officials are limiting vaccines to groups of people who are more at risk of being exposed to the monkeypox virus.

The city has done a “pretty good job” of matching vaccines to the groups of people who have seen confirmed cases of monkeypox so far, Arwady said at a Thursday news conference. For example, 99.8 percent of the city’s confirmed cases have been in people assigned male at birth, and 96.1 percent of vaccine doses have gone to that group.

When it comes to racial equity, though, the city is seeing early signs of struggle, data shows.

White Chicagoans make up 45 percent of monkeypox cases so far, but they’ve gotten 55 percent of doses, according to data Arwady shared at the news conference.

In comparison, Latino Chicagoans have made up 29 percent of confirmed cases, but they’ve only gotten 14 percent of the vaccine doses distributed in Chicago.

Black Chicagoans have seen similar struggles: Fourteen percent of confirmed monkeypox cases in Chicago have been in Black people, but that population has only gotten 11 percent of vaccine doses.

“We need to do better” when it comes to those gaps, Arwady said.

The city has experienced similar problems in its push to vaccinate Chicagoans against COVID-19.

Latino and Black Chicagoans long lagged behind white residents in getting vaccinated, with neighbors and experts citing a number of reasons: lack of access and awareness, distrust in the health care system and the rampant spread of misinformation, among others.

It’s not yet clear what could be fueling the disparity in monkeypox vaccinations, as that campaign is in its early days.

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Esther Corpuz, CEO of Alivio Medical Center, said the health care network is getting a lot of phone calls from people who are afraid.

“We need to emphasize education and vaccine awareness,” Corpuz said at the news conference.

Maurice Brownlee, chief wellness officer at Wellness Home, said that health care network is trying to be as accessible as possible by being open 10 a.m.-7 p.m. daily so people can try to get a vaccine appointment.

Another issue: Demand for the vaccine doses has far outpaced supply. Officials estimate there are 120,000 men who have sex with men in Cook County, putting them in a group that has seen more confirmed monkeypox cases than other populations; but the city has only received 33,000 doses of vaccine so far.

Officials are working to bring more vaccine to Chicago, with another 20,000 expected in the next four to six weeks. The federal government has ordered millions of doses, and the state of Illinois has sent some of its doses to Chicago, Arwady said.

Because of the low supply of vaccines available, the city is “still not anywhere meeting the demand” for vaccinations, Arwady said. But she said she’s pleased with the increase of doses that is expected.

The health commissioner said she’d like to use some of the city’s federal COVID-19 relief money on handling the monkeypox outbreak, but she can’t do that unless the feds OK that move. The city has gotten $0 to combat monkeypox so far, Arwady said, and it needs funds and more doses for large vaccination events.

“We’re ready to go with large plants for big [vaccination] events,” Arwady said. “But we just need the numbers.”

Where To Get Vaccinated Against Monkeypox In Chicago

The city health department updated its website this week to include a list of where to get vaccinated. The vaccine is two shots taken four weeks apart, and it takes about two weeks for full protection to kick in, Arwady said.

Click here for the list and see the sites below.

  • Health department Lakeview clinic, 2849 N. Clark St., 312-744-5507.
  • Howard Brown Health Clark, 6500 N. Clark St., 872-269-3600.
  • Howard Brown Health Sheridan, 4025 N. Sheridan Road, 872-269-3600.
  • Howard Brown Health 63rd, 641 W. 63rd St., 873-269-3600.
  • Howard Brown Health 55th, 1525 E. 55th St., 872-269-3600.
  • Wellness Home Lakeview, 2835 N. Sheffield Ave., No. 500, 773-296-2400.
  • Wellness Home Halsted, 3416 S. Halsted St., 773-621-7725.
  • RMR Core center, 2020 W. Harrison St., 312-448-4286. Website.
  • Rush University adolescent family center, 1645 W. Jackson Blvd., Suite 315A, 888-352-7874.
  • Esperanza, 2001 S. California Ave., Suite 100. Website.
  • Project Wish/UIC, 840 S. Wood St., Room B39. Website.

What Is Monkeypox?

Monkeypox is a rare disease caused by the monkeypox virus. Some officials are referring to monkeypox as MPV to help with destigmatization.

Monkeypox is rarely fatal, according to the CDC. But the disease can be painful and dangerous, said David Ernesto Munar, president and CEO of Howard Brown Health. About 5 percent of the roughly 200 Chicagoans who have been diagnosed with monkeypox have been hospitalized with the disease, Arwady said.

Monkeypox has been around since the 1950s and is not new, Arwady said. But monkeypox cases are typically only seen in western Africa in people who have been exposed to the virus in rodents, she said.

What is new about the 2022 outbreak is officials are seeing it globally and have seen it spread between people, often through “close, often intimate contact, especially when people develop sores,” Arwady said.

Monkeypox typically lasts two to four weeks, according to the CDC.

“I want to emphasize this is not COVID, but this is absolutely something to take seriously and to make sure we are getting protection where it is most needed,” Arwady said.

How Monkeypox Spreads

The virus can spread through person-to-person contact, officials said.

According to the CDC, monkeypox can spread through:

  • Someone coming into direct contact with a person’s infectious rash, scabs or body fluids.
  • Someone coming into contact with an infected person’s respiratory secretions during prolonged, face-to-face contact or during intimate physical contact, including through kissing, cuddling and sex.
  • Someone touching items — including clothing or linens — that previously touched a person’s infectious rash or body fluids.
  • A fetus can be infected if a pregnant person gets monkeypox.

Infected animals can also spread monkeypox to people in a variety of scenarios. For example, an infected animal could scratch or bite a person, or a person could eat an infected animal’s meat or products, according to the CDC.

Monkeypox can spread from the time an infected person shows symptoms until their rash has healed and they no longer show symptoms, according to the CDC. People who don’t have symptoms can’t spread the virus.

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Who Can Get Monkeypox?

Anyone can get monkeypox.

In Chicago, most cases have been diagnosed in men — in particular, men who have sex with men, Arwady said. But that’s largely because spread of the virus is easier in tight-knit social networks, she said; there is nothing specific about being part of the LGBTQ+ community that makes someone more susceptible to monkeypox.

RELATED: ‘Do People Outside The LGBTQ+ Community Got Skin?’: Experts Fight Monkeypox Stigma

The majority of Chicago’s monkeypox cases have been found on the North Side, Arwady said, but that’s possibly because residents there might have more awareness and are able to access testing and get diagnosed.

“Every day, we’re seeing additional cases detected that are not on the North Side,” Arwady said.

Forms of the monkeypox rash. Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Symptoms Of Monkeypox

The defining symptom of monkeypox is a rash that can take several weeks to heal and can go through stages as it heals, experts said.

The rash might look like pimples or blisters that can appear on a person’s face, face, hands, chest, genitals or anus, according to the CDC and experts.

The rash can also be internal, making it difficult for people to go to the bathroom, eat or drink, Munar said.

The rash can be “very painful, excruciatingly painful,” Munar said.

Some people may only experience the rash, while others will develop other symptoms, experts said. Other symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches and backache
  • Swollen lymph nodes, including in the neck and groin
  • Chills
  • Exhaustion and malaise

“Often, people have flu-like symptoms and then rashes that can look like a blister, like a pimple and can be very painful,” Arwady said.

Anyone with symptoms should seek medical care to get tested, experts said.

What Should You Do If You Think You Have Monkeypox?

People who think they have monkeypox should isolate from others, limit skin-to-skin contact with other people and be careful not to share bedding, towels or other linens, Munar said.

Anyone who has a new, unexplained rash should avoid sex or being intimate until they’ve been checked out by a medical professional, Arwady said.

People who think they have monkeypox should seek medical care to get tested.

How To Get Tested For Monkeypox

Go to a health care provider to get tested for monkeypox. Tests are not available over the counter.

Testing is widespread and available in most doctor’s offices and medical settings, Arwady said. A medical professional will run a swab over a person’s rash to test for monkeypox.

People who don’t have a health care provider can call the city health department at 312-746-4835 to get connected to care, Arwady said.

“We really want you to get tested regardless of whatever you’re concerned about,” Arwady said. “See your doctor if you’ve got a rash and you can get tested.”

Who Can Get Vaccinated Against Monkeypox In Chicago

Because vaccines are limited at this time, the city’s health department is trying to limit them for people who are most at risk from the virus.

Here’s who is eligible in Chicago:

  • Anyone who has had close contact with someone diagnosed with monkeypox. There are no restrictions for people in this group.
  • Gay, bisexual or other men (cis or trans) who have sex with men and who have at least one of these risk factors:
    – Intimate or sexual contact with other men in a social or sexual venue
    – Multiple or anonymous partners
    – Give or receive money or other goods or services in exchange for sex.

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