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LGBT+ groups raise alarm over UK monkeypox vaccine shortfall

The UK Health Security Agency has been accused by LGBT+ groups from five political parties of failing to secure enough doses of vaccine to protect at-risk groups from monkeypox.

In a letter to Steve Barclay, health and social care secretary, LGBT+ groups from the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens and Scottish National party, said sexual health experts had estimated that at least 250,000 vaccines were needed in order to give two doses to 125,000 people. However, the UKHSA “has procured just over half this amount and estimates that only 50,000 people need to be vaccinated”, the letter said.

Without urgent action, the groups said, “we risk monkeypox becoming endemic in the UK”. This would pose a serious risk to health “and will exacerbate the health inequalities already experienced by gay and bisexual men and other men who have sex with men”, they added.

In recent weeks, public health leaders have become increasingly concerned that the UKHSA, which was established last year after the disbandment of its predecessor Public Health England, has been slow to grasp the scale and impact of the outbreak. One senior director of public health said: “We’ve had almost 10 weeks of complacency and meanwhile up to 30 per cent of sexual health appointments have been displaced because clinics haven’t been given any extra money to cope with monkeypox.”

The UK is among the countries with the highest number of cases of monkeypox, which was declared a “public health emergency of international concern” by the World Health Organization last month and a US national health emergency by the Biden administration on Thursday. As of August 4, there were 2,859 confirmed and highly probable cases of monkeypox in the UK, according to the UKHSA, which said there were “early signs that the outbreak is plateauing”.

Ceri Smith, head of policy at the Terrence Higgins Trust, which co-ordinated the letter, called for “urgent political action” to get a grip on the number of monkeypox cases in the UK.

She highlighted the effect the outbreak was already having on the availability of other sexual health services, such as testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections, the provision of pre-exposure prophylaxis medicine and contraception services.

Jim McManus, president of the Association of Directors of Public Health, said despite repeated calls for action “there is still currently insufficient vaccine and significant issues with supply, which means that our efforts to end the outbreak, as called for by the WHO, are still falling short”.

People eligible for the vaccine were experiencing difficulty securing appointments and were unclear about when and how they would be contacted to get one, he said. As well as faster and smoother access to vaccination, sexual health clinics needed additional funding to cope with “exceptional demand due to monkeypox — both to deal with the outbreak and to maintain vitally important routine services”, he added.

The UKHSA said the 150,000 doses of the smallpox vaccine it had procured were being “delivered in batches and . . . offered to individuals at higher risk of coming into contact with monkeypox in order to protect them and to help contain the current outbreak”.

“We continue to monitor supply and remain in discussion with the manufacturer, though global supplies are limited,” it added.

The Department of Health and Social Care said thousands of monkeypox vaccines had already been administered “and the NHS is working to rapidly invite those at greatest risk”.

As well as the vaccine procurement, the DHSC said it was “working with partners — including the NHS and UK Health Security Agency — to share targeted, non-stigmatising communications with the LGBTQ+ community”.

“We are enabling local authorities to invest in essential frontline sexual health services by providing more than £3.4bn through the Public Health Grant,” it added.

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