York University researchers have furthered their study of the global mpox virus by publishing a new paper on the dangerous stigmas the 2SLGBTQIAP+ community face as the outbreak continues.
Since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared mpox an international public health emergency on July 23, 2022, over 100 countries have been affected by cases. A month earlier, York Postdoctoral Fellow Nicola Bragazzi, Assistant Professor in the Department of Mathematics Jude Kong and Distinguished Research Professor Jianhong Wu contributed to that decision by leading critical research identifying symptoms in a paper called “Epidemiological trends and clinical features of the ongoing monkeypox epidemic.”
Since the outbreak of mpox, and the paper, research has found that the Two-Spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex, asexual and pansexual (2SLGBTQIAP+) community, has been heavily and disproportionately impacted. Concerned with the risk the community faces in being stigmatized and blamed for transmitting the virus, Bragazzi, Kong and Wu turned from studying the clinical impact of mpox, to studying its social impact. They wanted to learn just how significant the stigma for the 2SLGBTQIAP+ community had become, because marginalized and minority populations being blamed for spreading a disease, can increase hesitancy to seek help when symptoms emerge or impact mental health conditions.
The result is a new study, co-authored with York’s Zahra Movahedi Nia (postdoctoral researcher) and Professors Ali Asgary and Dr. James Orbinski, which used two forms of artificial intelligence-driven natural language processing – topic modelling and sentiment analysis – to assess relevant popular discussions on Twitter and Facebook, identifying stigmatization sources, their hot spots and their sentiments.
“The 2SLGBTQIAP+ is a hard-to-reach community and social networks can be a useful venue to sample from this community and collect relevant data,” says Bragazzi.
The researchers discovered that online mpox has become tightly linked to the 2SLGBTQIAP+ community, with the majority of sentiments negative. Out of the 10 topics related to mpox and 2SLGBTQIAP+, eight were directly focused on blaming the community for spreading mpox.
“This study shows that the 2SLGBTQIAP+ community is being widely stigmatized for spreading the mpox virus, which turns the community into a highly vulnerable population. As a result, people are discouraged from seeking help upon observing the symptoms and the prevalence of the virus increases. Such stigmatization broadens disparities, brings social isolation and increases mental health disorders,” says Kong.
The academic quantification and proof of ongoing social stigmatization is meant to aid public health officials in determining the direction of policies, informing them with data-driven outcomes that can help counter stigma which, if it increases, can lead to lack of treatment, thereby making it more difficult to contain and control the mpox outbreak.
“Our work will enable health officials to identify hotspots, control fear and stop discrimination among the population,” says Wu.