Health officials are on high alert as cases pop up in countries where the virus is rarely reported.
As of this writing, the World Health Organization (WHO) has recorded more than 250 cases of monkeypox—a virus similar to, but less severe than, smallpox—in at least 16 countries, including Spain, Britain, France, Canada, and Australia since the beginning of May. So far, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says it has confirmed one case of monkeypox in the United States and is investigating four other suspected infections around the country. The outbreak is modest but notable because, for the first time, the infections are present in patients who haven’t traveled to Africa, where the disease is regularly found.
While health officials are taking the rash of cases seriously, many are urging calm. “The average person doesn’t need to be worried about monkeypox. This is an outbreak that is going to be contained,” Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Popular Mechanics.
What Is Monkeypox?
Monkeypox is a member of the orthopoxvirus family, a group of viruses that also includes smallpox. The virus earned its name during an outbreak in research monkeys in the 1950s, and the first case of monkeypox in a human was recorded in 1970. Since then, the disease has largely been relegated to West Africa, primarily the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The virus can infect a wide variety of species, including primates and rodents, which are generally responsible for passing the disease onto humans.
What Are the Symptoms of Monkeypox?
People infected with monkeypox don’t typically display symptoms until five to 21 days after contracting the virus. The hallmarks of monkeypox are fever, chills, body aches, and fatigue. More severe cases of monkeypox can cause a rash and open sores that usually begin in the mouth and then move to the face and extremities.
According to the CDC, infection usually lasts for two to four weeks and doesn’t require hospitalization, though the disease can be deadly for patients in locations that lack adequate medical care.
How Does Monkeypox Spread?
Humans usually contract monkeypox through contact with an infected animal, such as a bite or scratch. Human-to-human transmission generally happens through close contact with infected people, their bodily fluids, or contaminated personal items like bed sheets or clothing. The monkeypox virus can also spread through respiratory droplets from prolonged face-to-face contact.
WHO has attributed the recent outbreak to sex at two raves in Europe, and most of the infected happened to have been men who have sex with men. “It’s transmitting in that specific sexual and social network,” Adulja says, reiterating that the virus “has not historically traveled this way.”
How Is Monkeypox Treated?
The CDC says that there is currently no cure for monkeypox, but that a combination of the smallpox vaccine and antiviral drugs has proven to be effective in treating the disease. The smallpox vaccine is approximately 85 percent effective at preventing monkeypox, according to WHO.
The United States currently keeps 100 million doses of the smallpox vaccine in the Strategic National Stockpile, a repository of medical supplies and equipment that might be needed during a public health emergency.
How Can I Protect Myself From Monkeypox?
While reiterating that “the risk to the general population is low,” the CDC has issued an alert to people traveling internationally during the outbreak. The precautions are mostly common-sense practices we’ve all grown accustomed to during the pandemic: wash your hands, keep sanitizer nearby, and avoid touching your face and eyes.
The CDC also recommends avoiding contact with sick people (including materials that they may have touched, such as clothes or bedding) as well as living or dead small mammals and rodents.
If travelers develop a new and unexplained rash—with or without the other accompanying symptoms of monkeypox—they should seek treatment immediately, but forewarn medical staff so the proper quarantining protocol can be followed.
For most of us, though, monkeypox shouldn’t be on our list of concerns. “There’s a tendency, post-COVID, to look at everything through the lens of COVID,” says Adulja. “But each virus is distinct. Each virus is different. Not everything is COVID.”