The name alone is enough to get your attention. Monkeypox, an animal-borne virus akin to smallpox and typically found in West and Central Africa, has been detected in a growing number of countries, including the United States.
Where did it come from?
The viral infection got its name after two outbreaks of pox-like disease in colonies of monkeys kept for research in a laboratory in Denmark in 1958. Mainly spread through contact with infected body fluids or lesions, monkeypox is not as transmissible as coronavirus and less disfiguring and deadly than smallpox.
The virus can regularly be found in 11 African countries and in isolated incidents in travelers to those regions. “If a person contracts it, it’s typically because they have been to or had exposure to other travelers or animals who have the disease,” said Dr. Katugaha. There are two types of monkeypox: the milder West African strain and a more severe Central African or Congo strain. The current outbreak appears to involve the milder strain.”
What are the symptoms?
Early, flu-like symptoms of monkeypox develop five to 21 days after exposure and may include:
- Muscle aches
Blisters begin on the face and the extremities (like palms and soles of the feet) and spread to other parts of the body, including the genitals. These lesions can be painful and may become itchy and crusty during the healing phase.
Symptoms typically last between two to four weeks and go away on their own without treatment. “A person stays infectious from the time he or she has flu-like symptoms until the skin is clear,” Dr. Katugaha cautioned.
How is it spread?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), transmission of monkeypox occurs when a person comes into direct contact with the virus from an animal, human (bodily fluids) or contaminated materials (clothing, bedding). Animal-to-human transmission may occur by bite or scratch. Historically, infections happen in remote, forested areas where people encounter wildlife that carry monkeypox, such as primates and rodents.
It’s unclear whether monkeypox can be spread through sexual transmission (semen or vaginal fluids), but direct skin-to-skin contact with lesions during sexual activities can spread the virus, according to the World Health Organization.
“Researchers are trying to learn how and why the virus is now spreading beyond native areas. The good news is that monkeypox is not easily transmitted,” said Dr. Katugaha. “In order for someone to catch it from another person, he or she needs to have direct contact with an infectious sore or bodily fluid, or have prolonged face-to-face contact with an infected person.”
Have there ever been cases in the United States before?
Two confirmed cases of monkeypox occurred in the country in 2021; both had recently traveled to Nigeria. The largest outbreak of monkeypox ever reported in the U.S. occurred in 2003 when a shipment of exotic pets imported to Texas from Ghana tested positive for monkeypox, causing more than 43 confirmed or probable cases in six states, according to the CDC. That same year, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the sale or distribution of African rodents within the U.S.
Who should worry?
According to the CDC, cases of monkeypox are very rare in the U.S., however young children, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems face a heightened risk if exposed. Anyone who has recently traveled to areas where there is a high number of cases should be most vigilant.
How can you prevent it?
The federal government said a large-scale quarantine (like what we saw with COVID-19) isn’t necessary due to a sufficient supply of smallpox vaccines, including one authorized specifically for monkeypox. People who have been vaccinated against smallpox in the past will also have some protection against the virus.
“Studies have shown that the smallpox vaccine is about 85% effective in preventing monkeypox,” Dr. Katugaha said. “Another way to stay safe is by avoiding contact with people or animals who might have been exposed to the virus. Health care workers should wear proper protective equipment when they're around these suspected cases.”
Your risk of contracting monkeypox is low, but if you’re concerned, self-isolate, avoid close contact with others and seek advice from your primary care provider. To find the right physician for you, call 904.202.4YOU (4968) or click here to request an appointment.