July 11, 2022 – The COVID-19 pandemic might not be over, but the world is already paying attention to another virus: Monkeypox.
As of Friday, the US had reported nearly 800 cases of monkeypox. Overall, more than 8,200 cases have been reported across 57 countries and territories where monkeypox doesn’t typically spread, according to the latest estimates from the CDC.
US health officials are hoping to stem the outbreak by sending more vaccine doses to states as well as expanding the number of labs that can process samples. New York and California have reported the most cases so far, at 153 and 136, respectively.
As cases rise around the world, many may be wondering what the virus has in store for us. Read on for a look at what to know about monkeypox.
What is monkeypox, how does it spread, and what are its symptoms?
The monkeypox virus comes from the same family of viruses as smallpox, belonging to the orthopoxvirus genes in the family poxviridae, according to the CDC. It is not related to chickenpox.
Common symptoms of monkeypox are fever, headache, muscle aches, and swollen lymph nodes. Monkeypox also causes a rash that looks like raised bumps on the skin. It typically spreads through bodily fluids or by touching the rash of someone who has monkeypox.
But animals can also pass the virus to humans. Infected squirrels, dormice, and different species of monkeys can pass the virus to humans, “either by being scratched or bitten by the animal or by preparing or eating meat or using products from an infected animal,” the CDC says.
Bruce Hirsch, MD, an infectious disease doctor at Northwell Health in New York, says there is also a “high level of concern” in the medical community that monkeypox could spread to the squirrel population in the US
Monkeypox is endemic, or typically spread, in various countries in Central and West Africa. Cases in Europe and North America were identified in May.
Why is there concern about monkeypox spreading around the world?
The 2022 outbreak of monkeypox is concerning because of the “novel spread” of the virus, says Aaron Glatt, MD, chair of the Department of Medicine at Mount Sinai South Nassau Hospital in Oceanside, NY. Viruses travel from person to person all the time, but Glatt says that this monkeypox outbreak is different. This time, the virus is largely linked to “contact with partners of people having male-to-male sexual encounters,” he says, something that’s not usual for monkeypox.
It’s unknown if monkeypox can be spread by sexual transmission, according to the World Health Organization. But the direct skin-to-skin contact that happens during sex is enough to spread the virus from one person to another.
Who is most vulnerable to monkeypox?
Hirsch says that monkeypox is most likely to spread between people that have prolonged skin-to-skin contact with each other. Even though the virus is spreading among men who have sex with other men, the major risk factor is touching the lesions caused by monkeypox.
“It’s not every single man that has sex with men, it’s the subgroup that has skin-to-skin contact with a large number of partners,” Hirsch says.
So far, the vast majority monkeypox cases have been mild, Glatt says. The virus is rarely deadly, according to the CDC.
Severe cases of monkeypox can occur, though this is more common in children and people with weakened immune systems.
How is monkeypox treated?
Overall, “there are no treatments specifically for monkeypox virus infections,” the CDC says. The Cleveland Clinic says that monkeypox is a “self-limited” disease, meaning that it will usually run its course by itself without treatment. For mild cases of monkeypox, over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen and acetaminophen can help with symptoms.
That said, because monkeypox and smallpox are similar genetically, some antiviral drugs and vaccines used to treat smallpox are sometimes used to prevent and treat monkeypox, according to the CDC.
The medications tecovirimat (TPOXX) and brincidofovir are FDA-approved to treat smallpox, but the CDC is still investigating how well they work on monkeypox.
There are also two FDA-approved monkeypox vaccines, which are typically meant for use in high-risk adults. In late June, President Joe Biden announced a plan to provide monkeypox vaccines across the US, targeting communities where “transmission has been the highest.”
You can read more about the monkeypox vaccines here.
How can we prevent the spread of monkeypox?
Avoiding skin-to-skin contact is the best way to limit the spread of monkeypox, according to Hirsch. The CDC says that avoiding direct contact with the skin, clothing, and bedding of a person with monkeypox will help prevent you from getting the virus. The federal agency also says that it’s best to not share cups or eating utensils with someone with monkeypox. People with monkeypox should also self-isolate to prevent spreading the virus to others.
Overall, how worried should we be about monkeypox?
“I don’t think most of us need to be worried about monkeypox,” says Hirsch. It’s “unlikely” that it will become a worldwide epidemic. Compared to the beginning months of the COVID-19 pandemic, “we already have medications and therapies to prevent the already low risk of aggressive infection,” says Hirsch.
“Worry is unnecessary, but concern by physicians and public health officials is important,” says Glatt.