The Community Education Group in West Virginia will use two $50,000 grants they were awarded recently to address Mpox, formerly known as monkeypox, in LGBTQ residents across 13 states in Appalachia.

This fall, the Community Education Group received a $50,000 grant from Gilead Sciences and a $50,000 grant from ViiV Healthcare to help rural Appalachian community-based organizations meet the needs of LGBTQ residents in rural parts of 13 states that comprise Appalachia, as defined by the Appalachian Regional Commission. These states are Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.

The funding will help the Community Education Group create educational materials and host meetings to reduce barriers to care for those in the LGBTQ community in rural areas, said Toni Young, the organization’s executive director. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as of November 22, 2022, more than a third (35%) of the 29,199 Mpox cases in the United States were located in Appalachian states targeted by CEG’s grant program. Combined the 13 states have nearly 10,250 reported cases, CDC data shows. 

In West Virginia, only 12 cases of Mpox have been reported, making it one of the bottom 10 states in the country for reported cases. Other states with few cases are  South Dakota (3), Vermont (3), Wyoming (4), and Alaska (5). On the other end of the spectrum are California (5,572 cases), New York (4,152), Texas (2,814), Florida (2,796), and Georgia (1,951). 

The grant program of the Community Education Group will help community health care providers reach those who are most at risk and teach providers how to communicate with patients they might otherwise not come in contact with, Young said.  

Young said the program was developed using lessons learned during the Covid-19 pandemic. Not only did the pandemic highlight the discrepancy between urban and rural care, but also the lack of experience rural providers may have with LGBTQ health needs.

“What we saw with Mpox was that one of the things that happened right away was that vaccinations were initially only available for men who have sex with men,” Young said. Rural health professionals may have less contact with openly gay patients. “So they didn’t know how to have the conversations,” Young said.

Health care providers want to reach out to LGBTQ people, she said, but may not know how to engage them effectively.

“If I’m (a health care provider and I’m) not dealing with anybody of this population ever, and now you’re asking me to do outreach, you’re asking me to do engagement. I want to make sure that I’m saying the right thing,” she said. “We have to give people a little help, give them a little training, and give them a little awareness and the opportunity to do better.

Although there hasn’t been a boom in cases, Young said, the grant is more proactive than reactive.

“You look at a place like West Virginia, the number is 12 cases for 55 counties,” she said. “That’s bad, but that’s the number of people who came in, so we don’t know who didn’t come in because we don’t know what outreach was done.”

In some areas, outreach has made a difference in the number of vaccinations given, she said. Hardy County, West Virginia, where the Community Education Group has offices, saw some of the highest rates of Mpox vaccinations in the state, she said. That’s because Lost River, West Virginia, in Hardy County, is one of the top locations on the LGBTQ vacation destination list.

“So it has a population of people who were aware of Mpox, and a population of people who were men who have sex with men and were aware of the need for vaccination,” she said. “The easier path was to go through the Hardy County Health Department, which gave out the vaccinations, and is now one of the places where the state is saying, ‘Hey, great job.'”

Young said the goal is to get grant applications in and award them quickly. Applications started October 31 and evaluations began by mid-November. Grant applications will continue to be accepted and awarded until funds run out, the group said. 

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