People with chronic skin conditions say they have grown used to stares and questions about their appearance, but the harassment and stigma have worsened during the global monkeypox outbreak.
As a result, some people with skin differences say they’ve started covering up with hoodies and gloves, even when it’s hot, or stopped going out as often.
This summer, 21-year-old Jacqueline Nguyen, who has eczema, boarded a Spirit Airlines flight in Los Angeles, but shortly before takeoff, Nguyen was asked to leave the plane and asked on your skin
After Nguyen explained it was eczema, the airline asked for evidence. Nguyen was only allowed back on the plane after producing a bottle of eczema cream. Nguyen called the experience “embarrassing” and a “nightmare” and posted videos on her TikTok about the incident. Spirit Airlines did not respond to requests for comment.
“I just existed in the skin that I have, that I wear every day, and I was treated like a problem,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen now parts her hair differently to try to cover eczema on her scalp and face, and wears long sleeves when leaving the house or avoids going out completely during a flare-up.
An estimated 84 million people live with some type of skin condition, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. Eczema, an inflammatory skin condition that can cause itchy red, crusty, and sometimes oozing skin, affects about 30 million people in the United States. Psoriasis, an autoimmune disease, affects about 3% of the US adult population and can create red, silvery, scaly patches. with well-defined edges, especially on the elbows, knees and scalp.
By contrast, monkeypox usually presents as pus- or fluid-filled bumps that are often painful, said Esther Freeman, a dermatologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a member of the Academy’s ad hoc task force. American Dermatology.
Psychologists say the pandemic has increased medical anxiety in general, which may explain the extra scrutiny of people with skin conditions. A recent national survey by the Annenberg Center for Public Policy showed that nearly 1 in 5 Americans were worried about contracting monkeypox, but understood little about it.
Mark Schaller, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, said health fears can exacerbate prejudice against those who look different. Their research has also found that a higher perceived threat of infection correlates with more prejudicial attitudes toward immigrants, the obese, and the elderly. It has also found that when people feel more vulnerable to disease, they report having less contact with people with disabilities.
“In the last three years, the disease has been on people’s minds a lot because it’s been in the news a lot,” Schaller said. “When people are more concerned about illness, they express more prejudice against people with physical disabilities.”
Kate Riggle, 41, has psoriasis, and after the chicken pox outbreak, she began receiving daily complaints from customers at work. She works at a deli in her hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota, where she helps prepare food and works as a cashier.
“I’ve had people complain that they don’t even want their money touched,” he said. “Even if my psoriasis is on my elbow.”
Lilly Simon, 33, of Brooklyn, said she understands people’s uncertainty when they see the bumps caused by her neurofibromatosis 1, a genetic condition that causes benign tumors to grow on nerve endings and create small bumps all over the body. But, he said, not that justify rude behavior or abuse.
This summer, Simon was unknowingly filmed by a stranger on his way to work. The video was posted on TikTok with a monkey emoji and a question mark. The video went viral, with many commenters accusing Simon of having and spreading monkeypox.
When Simon saw the post a few days later, he was horrified. “My heart stopped,” she said. “All these old feelings came up. The old feelings of feeling like I have to cover up.”
Simon quickly posted a response video to raise awareness of his condition, explaining that he has suffered bullying for his skin in the past and has sought therapy to cope.
It is not clear whether people with skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema have a higher risk of contracting monkeypox if they come into contact with it. But the chances of catching monkeypox from common activities remain low, said Freeman, the dermatologist at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Freeman advises her patients to follow the same precautions as the general population: get vaccinated if they are in a high-risk group and avoid contact with anyone who has monkeypox.
What you need to know about monkey pox symptoms, treatments and protection
Freeman stressed that anyone in a high-risk group for monkeypox who also has one condition that compromises the skin barrier should receive the Jynneos vaccine, which was specifically approved by the FDA for monkeypox. The older generation smallpox vaccine, ACAM2000, carries a risk of serious side effects for people with certain skin conditions.
A person with eczema who contracts monkeypox could be at risk for more serious disease because the disease can spread more easily from one area of their body to another, said Erica Dommasch, a dermatologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Downtown Boston.
If someone, with or without a chronic skin condition, notice anything unusual on their own skin, he encouraged them to consult a dermatologist.
As for those people who are scrutinizing and harassing people with skin conditions? Leave the diagnosis to a professional, he said.
“There are many other skin conditions that exist in the world and we shouldn’t assume that everyone who looks different has monkey pox,” Dommasch said.