Mayor and County Judge Say There's a Shortage of Monkeypox Vaccine, Appeal For More

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo at monkeypox press conference.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo at monkeypox press conference. Screenshot

Monkeypox is not a new disease. It is not airborne. Its most significant dangers are believed to be to children and the immune-compromised. But it is a lousy, uncomfortable, painful illness to suffer and Houston and Harris County officials want to get ahead of its rising spread in the area.

That was the message delivered in tandem Monday by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo at their joint late afternoon press conference.

“We’re having this conversation today not to try to burden people, not to make people scared, but to get to work. To proactively work on making sure that this takes a different trajectory [than COVID-19] to inform folks of what we need to be doing,” Hidalgo said.

Monkeypox is most commonly transmitted during sex by gay or bisexual men, but it is not limited to that population. The fear voiced by officials Monday is that being diagnosed with monkeypox will carry the same stigma that early on attached to HIV and AIDS, allowing the quick spread of those diseases and a complacency on the part of the general public.

The good news is, of course, that there is a vaccine to treat it. The bad news is that current supply of JYNNEOS is nowhere near demand in this or any other densely populated U.S. city. The vaccine must be administered in two doses, four weeks apart, so the supply that Houston and Harris County received of about 5,000 doses, really doesn’t go very far. Turner and Hidalgo are sending a joint letter to the White House and Centers for Disease Control, asking for more vaccine.

“The community threat level to the general population continues to remain low, but the number of cases in the Houston area is rising. Because of the limited supply of the vaccine it is still very concerning,” Turner said.

The World Health Organization has declared that monkeypox, which originated in Africa where it is endemic, constitutes a global health emergency. As proof the disease is not limited to gay men, two cases involving children were confirmed by the CDC last week.

“I want to assure you that the city of Houston and Harris County are taking this matter very seriously,” Turner said at the start of the press conference. Because of the limited supply, the vaccine is not available to the general public and right now is being directed to people with a likely exposure to a confirmed monkeypox case, he said. “The adults are adults diagnosed with specific sexually transmitted diseases,” he said.

While acknowledging that the threat level to Harris County is low right now – 57 cases confirmed so far and 183 in all of Texas – Turner said the number of cases is on the rise since the first confirmed case was reported on June 18. To date only one person locally has been hospitalized but that is for pain management, he said.

Hidalgo said in Harris County all the confirmed cases have been men between the ages of 20 and 58. She said monkeypox has come out of Africa and spread to the United States before “But never to this extent.”

“The good news is that this virus already existed; it’s a known virus. There’s a vaccine already, the smallpox vaccine. There are treatment options already available,” Hidalgo said. “The challenging news is that it can cause certain areas of concern particularly for the immuno-compromised , particularly for children and there’s some things we still don’t know about what the impact of this virus could be in the community. From our experience with COVID, the unknowns are the concern.”

Unlike with the COVID-19 virus, people who suspect they have monkeypox should go to their own family doctor to be tested. If they don’t have one or insurance, Hidalgo said to contact the Harris County Public Health system or the Houston Health Department and they will work to find them someone for tests. “It’s best to start the vaccine within four days of exposure,” Turner said.

In its initial stages, monkey pox can look like a pimple. Initially there may be flu-like aches , fevers and headaches before a rash develops usually on the face, palms and genital area and finally skin lesions surface. A person who has monkeypox must isolate and not stop until the lesions have disappeared and new skin has grown over them.

“This is not the time for us to be alarmed. This is the time for us to be informed. It’s not an STD,” said Dr, Vandana Shrikanth, an infectious disease specialist from Legacy Community Health. “It is not as transmissible as the COVID-19 virus.” She said people shouldn’t be afraid that they will catch monkeypox by riding in an elevator with other people or while standing in line at a grocery store.

She advised people to wash their hands and to avoid handling the bedding of someone with suspected or confirmed monkeypox.

“We see what’s happening in New York, DC, Francisco, Chicago,” Said Turner. “We want to get ahead of it. We want to be able to provide vaccines beyond just that top priority group.”
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
Contact: Margaret Downing