On Monday, May 23, the Iraqi religious-political figurehead Muqtada al-Sadr posted a lengthy and divisive statement on his official Twitter account in which he claimed the current strain of monkeypox was a result of homosexuality.
The Shia cleric, whose populist Sadrist Movement made major gains in the parliamentary elections last October, urged officials who had approved pro-LGBT+ legislation in Iraq to withdraw these “criminal” laws in light of “scourges and epidemics”. He went on: “New anti-LGBT+ measures should be taken to stop the spread of the new monkeypox epidemic, or what we call the Gay Pox."
Sadr has millions of supporters in Iraq and elsewhere. Twitter later removed the post, but his comments made waves in the Middle East, where homophobia is still rife. Al-Sadr had also started a trending hashtag which translated as #no_to_homosexuality, and suggested Iraq hold a “national day of opposition” to homosexuality (in a country where it is already illegal).
Is homosexuality the cause of monkeypox? In this report, IranWire tries to answer this question.
What do we Know About Monkeypox?
Monkeypox is a viral disease closely related to smallpox that was first identified in 1970. It typically affects rodents and primates in west and central Africa but can sometimes be transmitted to humans too. It can cause fever, headache, muscle aches, swollen lymph nodes and exhaustion, as well as a rash that can leave small red bumps on the skin.
As of May 31, the World Health Organization had counted a total of 550 confirmed cases in 30 countries where the disease is not already endemic, with multiple outbreaks taking place at once in different parts of the world. For now, the WHO assesses monkeypox as posing a “moderate risk” to global public health but does not expect the outbreak to escalate to the level of a pandemic.
There are two identified strains of the disease. One can kill up to 10 percent of those who contract it, with children and young people more vulnerable to severe illness. The one spreading overseas is currently thought to be the milder variant from West Africa that kills around one percent of infected people. However, no useful data on deaths from monkeypox has yet been released by the newly-affected countries. In Congo, where monkeypox is already endemic, nine deaths have been reported so far in 2022.
Vaccines for smallpox have historically proven to be around 85 percent effective in providing immunity against monkeypox. One company, the Danish biotech firm Bavarian Nordic, has said it can produce around 30 million doses of its officially-approved monkeypox shot each year.
How Does Monkeypox Spread?
Monkeypox is transmitted to humans through close contact with an infected person or animal. Between humans, it can be transmitted through contact with broken skin or lesions, body fluids, respiratory droplets, or contaminated material like bedding or clothing.
While the cause of the current outbreak is being investigated, health authorities in the affected countries are advising people to regularly wash their hands with soap and water, or with an alcohol-based hand sanitiser, as they did during the pandemic. People should also only eat meat that has been thoroughly cooked, not get near wild, stray, unwell-looking or dead animals, and avoid close contact with people who are unwell and may have monkeypox.
Is Monkeypox a Homosexual Disease?
In the last week, official health bodies in the United States and the United Kingdom have confirmed that a disproportionate number of so-far identified cases have been identified in gay and bisexual men: four out of the first seven detected in England, for instance. An investigation is under way to establish if one particular event led to an outbreak affecting more men who have sex with men.
But experts the world over have emphasized that anyone can contract the virus through close personal contact. The World Health Organization states: “Anyone can get or pass on monkeypox, regardless of their sexuality”, as has been the case since the 1970s. One study found that of 282 patients in Congo in the mid-1980s, 90 percent of those infected were not gay men but children aged under 15.
In terms of the recent outbreak, scientists have explained that because the monkeypox virus spreads most rapidly through sexual contact like kissing and intercourse, once it has been introduced to a specific community it will spread more rapidly within members of that community. But it could just as easily have been any community.
There have also been many recent reported cases of apparently heterosexual people and children contracting monkeypox. Among the first seven cases in England were three people who were not gay or bisexual men. A 40-year-old woman in Britain recently passed on the virus to her husband, and a child was reported to be in intensive care. A study as recently as 2017 examined the effect of monkeypox on pregnant women who contracted the disease.
A Biased Conduit
This is not the first time Muqtada al-Sadr has blamed the LGBT+ community for disease outbreaks. In 2020 he baselessly blamed Covid-19 on the legalization of gay marriage in Western countries. No credible scientific study in any country of the world has ever established a link between Sars-CoV-2 and non-heterosexual relations.
No cases of monkeypox have been detected in Iraq so far either. A spokesman for the Iraqi advocacy group IraQueer told Middle East Eye this week that Sadr's statements could constitute "hate speech" against LGBTQ+ communities.
On Monday, May 23, Muqtada al-Sadr said “criminal” laws supporting the LGBT+ community in Iraq should be withdrawn in light of “scourges and epidemics”, adding: “New anti-LGBT+ measures should be taken to stop the spread of the new monkeypox epidemic, or what we call the Gay Pox."
A disproportionate number of new cases of monkeypox have been detected among men who have sex with men. However, the World Health Organization, experts and publicly-available records of detected cases all show that anyone can contract the disease, and at other times in the last few decades, groups other than gay and bisexual men have caught it in greater numbers. IranWire therefore awards Al-Sadr’s statement the “not true” badge.
Not True: A false statement about a specific recent event or something not previously disproven, as supported with facts and evidence.
You can read about our fact-checking methodology here.