Well-Being Prevention & Cures

How concerned should we be about monkeypox?

In non-endemic countries, there have been 131 cases identified, says the WHO.
black and white microscope image of monkeypox virus
This 2003 electron microscope image made available by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows mature, oval-shaped monkeypox virions, left, and spherical immature virions, right, obtained from a sample of human skin associated with the 2003 prairie dog outbreak. A leading doctor who chairs a World Health Organization expert group described the unprecedented outbreak of the rare disease monkeypox in developed countries as “a random event” that might be explained by risky sexual behavior at two recent mass events in Europe. (Cynthia S. Goldsmith, Russell Regner/CDC via AP, File)

Story at a glance

  • Monkeypox is caused by a virus that crosses over from animals to humans. Spread by close contact, it can lead to fever and rashes.

  • There have been 131 confirmed cases and 106 suspected cases in countries where the virus is not normally occurring, mostly in Europe. 

  • A new study describes how researchers had tried antivirals on monkeypox patients during 2018 to 2021.

Monkeypox is a virus found most commonly in mammals like rodents in Africa and can lead to illness in humans if the virus makes the jump. Recently, it has increasingly been detected on other continents. In the U.S., there was one confirmed case of monkeypox detected in Massachusetts on May 18 in a person who traveled from Canada and a case detected in Nov. 2021 from another traveler. 

It has been detected in the U.S. in the past, including an outbreak in 2003, with 47 confirmed cases when people came into contact with infected pet prairie dogs. 

This time around, health officials are talking about monkeypox more widely because there appears to be more community transmission from people to people outside of Africa, mostly in European countries like Spain and Portugal. In the U.K., there have been up to 56 potential cases detected since May 7. Overall, there have been 131 total laboratory confirmed cases in 19 non-endemic countries and 106 suspected cases, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). 

What is monkeypox? 

Despite the name, monkeypox does not come from monkeys. Scientists are unsure which species of animals it comes from, but several mammal species could harbor the virus. It is a type of orthopoxvirus and is so similar to smallpox that the smallpox vaccine is somewhat effective in preventing against monkeypox. 

Monkeypox is not easily transmitted through the air, unlike COVID-19. It also does not cause respiratory illness. Symptoms include fever, rash and swollen lymph nodes. The monkeypox virus is spread through exposure to bodily fluids containing the virus. 

Is it treatable? 

There currently aren’t any treatments available for monkeypox, although health care providers have tried giving antivirals to patients in the past. 

In a new study released today in the journal The Lancet Infectious Diseases, doctors in the U.K. gave antivirals to monkeypox patients during 2018 to 2021. There were seven cases total, with some being the first known cases of in-hospital and household transmission outside of Africa. Researchers observed the responses to two antivirals: brincidofovir and tecovirimat. They found that the latter might have shortened the duration of symptoms and reduced the contagious period. 

“As public health officials are trying to understand what is causing the May 2022 monkeypox outbreaks in Europe and North America – which have affected several patients who reported neither travel nor an identified link to a previously known case – our study offers some of the first insights into the use of antivirals for the treatment of monkeypox in humans,” said lead author Hugh Adler of the Liverpool University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, in a press release

Is it preventable? 

The smallpox vaccine is somewhat effective in protecting against monkeypox because the viruses are from the same family of viruses. People who have been exposed to monkeypox can get the vaccine and be partly protected against the disease. Two smallpox vaccines are available to people who need it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the U.K., government officials are also offering the smallpox shot to those who may need it. 

How concerned should we be? 

Some of the recent cases are suspected to have been transmitted between humans, rather than the typical animal to human route. Because it is not as contagious as respiratory diseases, health officials are not expecting that these cases will lead to a larger outbreak. “Although this latest outbreak has affected more patients than we had previously encountered in the UK, historically monkeypox has not transmitted very efficiently between people, and overall the risk to public health is low,” Adler said. 

The WHO said that monkeypox is “containable,” at the organization’s assembly. The WHO have said that many cases were detected in men who have sex with men, and they recommend that rash and illness surveillance be strengthened for this and the wider community.