Clinics that treat sexually transmitted diseases — already struggling to contain an explosive increase in infections such as syphilis and gonorrhea — now find themselves on the front lines in the nation’s fight to control the rapidly growing monkeypox outbreak.
After decades of underfunding and 2½ years into a pandemic that severely disrupted care, clinic staffers and public health officials say the clinics are ill-equipped for yet another epidemic.
“America does not have what it needs to adequately and totally fight monkeypox,” said David Harvey, executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors. “We are already stretched to capacity.”
Monkeypox — a cousin of smallpox — is not technically considered a sexually transmitted infection. But it spreads through close contact and is now being transmitted largely through networks of men who have sex with men.
Because the current monkeypox outbreak causes blisters or pimples on the genitals, many patients are seeking care for what appears to be herpes, syphilis, or another sexually transmitted infection. Patients often prefer to seek care anonymously at public clinics, rather than visit their primary care doctors, because of the stigma of sexually transmitted infections.
Although most people with monkeypox recover on their own in two to four weeks, about 10% need hospital care, said Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine.
The degree of complications from monkeypox “has been much higher than any of us expected,” said Dr. Mary Foote, an infectious diseases expert at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, who spoke July 14 during a webinar presented by the Infectious Diseases Society of America. In addition to severe pain, some people with monkeypox are at risk of permanent scarring. Foote said the pain can be excruciating, making it difficult for patients to swallow, urinate, or have bowel movements.
Sexual health clinics have been stretched so thin that many lack the staff to perform such basic duties as contacting and treating the partners of infected patients.
These clinics are some of …