August 5, 2022 - 3:00pm

A new Lancet study suggests that monkeypox could be a sexually transmitted disease. Researchers analysed a 39-year-old male patient who presented typical symptoms of the disease, including a fever and lesions on the skin.

Semen collected from the patient in “acute phase of infection” — six days after the onset of symptoms — might contain a virus that could replicate, potentially capable of infecting others. The study concludes that sexual transmission of monkeypox may be possible, “especially in the current 2022 outbreak of the disease”.

The research does not dispute the common understanding of how monkeypox spreads: transmission occurs primarily through prolonged skin-to-skin contact with an infected person. The Centre for Disease Control (CDC) also posits that respiratory transmission is possible in close face-to-face interactions.

Jimmy Whitworth, Emeritus Professor of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told UnHerd: “This [study] does indeed strengthen suspicions that ‘this might be a viable route of transmission’.” But Prof. Whitworth also explained: “We don’t know how widespread this finding is in infected cases, nor how long live virus persists in semen.”

Since the outbreak in May this year, debate has raged over whether monkeypox should be classified as an STI. Public health officials fear that labelling the disease as such may not only be inaccurate, but it could also stigmatise marginalised communities. In remarks delivered last week, Director General of the World Health Organisation, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, called on social media platforms, tech companies and news organisations to “prevent harmful information and stigma around monkeypox”. Several media publications have also followed suit, with Men’s Health saying that it amounted to “misinformation”, while USA Today ran the headline: “Monkeypox is spreading through sex, but it’s not an STI. Why calling it one is a problem.” Fortune Magazine had an epidemiologist “debunk” the “myth” that monkeypox was sexually transmitted.

But in light of the Lancet study, this narrative could soon change. Although the paper notes that further research is required, its findings support the idea that the transmission of monkeypox during sexual activity is a “viable and recognised route”.

is a reporter for UnHerd.