John Oliver addressed the increasing numbers of monkeypox cases in the U.S. on Sunday night’s episode of HBO Max’s Last Week Tonight. The comedian expressed his frustration that “despite the fact we’re still in the middle of the COVID pandemic, we seem to be replicating some of its key mistakes.”
Oliver listed that some of the factors that don’t contribute to getting a hold of the monkeypox outbreak include “persecuting strangers, spreading misinformation, and badly mismanaging the public health response.”
The talk show host explained that monkeypox is a “pox virus” and “part of the same family as smallpox” but not as transmissible or as fatal. It was in 1958 that monkeypox was first discovered in captivated monkeys in Denmark that “like got them from rodents.” Oliver then shared an ABC News report from 2003 talking about a monkeypox outbreak that was linked to pet prairie dogs in the midwest.
California declared a State of Emergency on August 1st after recording close to 800 cases and the U.S. followed suit declaring a Health Emergency after cases topped 7,000 across the nation.
Oliver detailed that a majority of cases recorded as of now are “among gay and bisexual men and their sexual networks. The virus spreads through sustained skin-to-skin contact and it is currently believed to be spreading most commonly during sex, though in rare cases it can be spread through respiratory droplets.”
Despite knowing about the virus and having some tools to control a widespread outbreak, Oliver called out the fumbled containment of the virus.
“As of early June, we were only conducting 10 tests per day in total across the country — increasing to just 60 by the end of the month,” Oliver said.
Although testing has ramped up, the only FDA-authorized test detects the virus by swabbing lesions but a person would have to wait until they appear to run the test, which is not conventional as they could have other symptoms beforehand. Oliver noted that until testing gets better, there won’t be a good indicator as to how widespread the virus is.
“Every part of our early response to this made it harder than it needed to be,” he added. “I will say, there have been some improvements recently. We’ve seen some progress on testing, more vaccines are finally coming with large numbers set to start arriving in October.”
However, Oliver then questioned if the delays in fixing the problems had anything to do with “who’s been getting hit the hardest.”
“You have to believe that if monkeypox was spreading largely through heterosexual sex things would be drastically different,” Oliver said. “It is not homophobic to acknowledge who is currently most affected, which is gay and bisexual men, sex workers, and people who participate in sex with multiple partners. What is homophobic is when you blame or shame the people who are suffering or when you decide you don’t need to care about this because you don’t see their lives as valuable or their suffering as consequential and that is where there are strong echoes of the AIDS crisis in some of the discussion around monkeypox.”
Oliver suggests information around protecting yourself from monkeypox be framed in a more “sex positive” light as it would be more likely to be well-received.
“The next 6 to 8 weeks are going to be crucial so we need to be ramping up testing and data collection and getting vaccines and anti-virals to those who need them the most,” Oliver suggested for the short term. “We also need to make quarantining be more logistically possible for people because monkeypox can require up to 4 weeks of isolation and for many, that is going to be difficult to manage without extra support.”
In the long term, Oliver suggested, “We badly need to restructure our public health system so it is better able to respond to a viral outbreak.”