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It took him multiple trips to the ER to start receiving treatment for monkeypox

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Today, the World Health Organization declared monkeypox a, quote, "public health emergency of international concern," unquote. In the U.S., most cases are concentrated among men who have sex with men, and people can spend days in search of the right diagnosis. Jackie Fortier of member station KPCC has this report.

JACKIE FORTIER, BYLINE: Two days after Kevin Kwong flew home to California from New York Pride, his hands were so itchy it woke him up. He initially thought it was eczema.

KEVIN KWONG: Everything started rapidly getting worse. I started to get more spots on my face, more redness, and started leaking fluid. The rash expanded to my elbows and my hands and sort of my ankles.

FORTIER: An urgent care doctor didn't think it was monkeypox. Kwong's spots were clustered together and looked different from the monkeypox pictures the doctor had seen.

KWONG: Depending on where I was with my symptoms and who I was speaking to, I was getting different answers.

FORTIER: During a virtual appointment, a nurse noticed the rash spreading toward his eyes and told him to go to the emergency room. There, doctors told him he may have monkeypox, but they were unprepared to handle a potential case.

KWONG: And so they were researching while I was in this room and back and forth on the phone with the CDC. I expected myself, as a patient, to be in the dark, but I didn't realize how little information was also given to providers and how unprepared they were as well.

FORTIER: His lesions were swabbed, but the monkeypox test result wouldn't come back for at least a week. He spent 12 hours in the ER before being sent home.

KWONG: I'm just miserable. I have sores in the back of my throat, in my mouth, all over my body.

FORTIER: He says the pain was inescapable.

KWONG: It feels like you stick your hand in water that's too hot - sort of that feeling - but you cannot take it out.

FORTIER: After a FaceTime call with a friend, he broke down crying after seeing himself on the screen.

KWONG: Your body is being taken over by this thing that you don't understand. It's both painful and terrifying.

FORTIER: After days of appointments and very little sleep, Kwong decided to drive to the University of California San Francisco Hospital. There, he was given oxycodone for the pain and swabbed again for a monkeypox test. The next day, UCSF infectious disease specialist Dr. Peter Chin-Hong contacted him.

PETER CHIN-HONG: I thought, wow, this is really, really extensive disease. I've seen other cases of monkeypox before, but they were very limited. I would say Kevin is probably in the top 5% of severity of diseases, and most people probably wouldn't get as severe as Kevin.

FORTIER: Because the rash was close to Kevin Kwong's eyes, if left untreated, it could have caused him to go blind. Dr. Chin-Hong says the case was so severe, the hospital okayed a prescription of TPOXX. That's an antiviral that's been given special clearance by the FDA to treat monkeypox under certain circumstances.

CHIN-HONG: I was shocked by how fast Kevin improved, so it was almost like he was in a turbo rocket on the way to recovery.

FORTIER: Kwong thinks he likely contracted monkeypox from a guy he hooked up with during New York Pride. That man did test positive. Despite Kwong's quick turnaround on the antiviral, he still hasn't tested positive. Dr. Chin-Hong says health workers may not have rubbed hard enough to get live cells.

CHIN-HONG: It's very difficult, as a clinician, to, like, really get a good sample in these kinds of lesions because the patient is often in pain, and you don't like to see people suffer.

FORTIER: Kwong now takes six antiviral pills a day and no longer needs pain medication.

KWONG: My face was the first to heal, which I think helped me a lot, just mindset-wise - to be able to recognize who I was in the mirror again.

FORTIER: Throughout his ordeal, Kwong has been posting on social media to encourage people to get tested and get the vaccine if they're eligible. For NPR News, I'm Jackie Fortier in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Fortier
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