Your Monkeypox Questions, Answered
And how worried should you be?
Monkeypox is nothing new, but a mysterious new wave of cases in the UK, mainland Europe, Canada, and now the United States has health officials concerned. Should you be concerned as well?
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What is monkeypox?
You can think of monkeypox like smallpox junior. Similar to smallpox, it’s a virus that causes nasty lesions all over your body, but first, it starts with typical signs of illness, like fever, aches, swollen lymph nodes, chills, and exhaustion. Cases typically clear up within four weeks, and it’s not as severe or deadly as smallpox was.
Where Does monkeypox come from?
It was first spotted in African monkey populations in 1958, but the first human case was identified in 1970 in the Democratic Republic of Congo. While smallpox has been all but eradicated, monkeypox lives on, largely in Africa, especially in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria.
Isolated cases of monkeypox have been identified in the United States before, the most recent being last year. The most notable American outbreak was in the Midwest in 2003, where prairie dogs infected 71 people. No person-to-person contact was identified and no one died.
How deadly is Monkeypox?
In Africa, monkeypox kills 1 out of 10 patients, but that’s largely due to lack of treatment. In the developed world, death is rare. The variant spotted in the UK has a 1% fatality rate.
How is Monkeypox spread?
Despite the name monkeypox, the disease is often linked to contact with African mice. In the 2003 outbreak, it was traced back to an exotic animal dealer who imported mice from Africa. Monkeypox is largely spread through close contact with infected animals and people, such as biting, eating bush meat, contact with bodily fluids, or through respiratory droplets. Again, even when spread through droplets, close contact is typically required for monkeypox to spread.
Can monkeypox be treated?
Per the CDC: “Currently, there is no proven, safe treatment for monkeypox virus infection.” However, there are some potential treatments, and the smallpox vaccine has been proven effective against monkeypox.
But routine smallpox vaccination ended in 1972, so there are generations of Americans who haven’t been vaccinated at all, and even then, the vaccine only prevents infection for up to five years. For the most part, the only Americans who still get vaccinated against smallpox are military service members.
Because it hasn’t been in steady use in decades, there is a limited supply of smallpox vaccines to control a monkeypox outbreak. And since the smallpox vaccine is a live virus, it has a whole host of weird side effects. And it leaves a nasty scar.
Why are health authorities concerned?
Monkeypox is usually spread from animals to people, as in the 2003 outbreak, but in this case, it appears to be spreading from person to person.
In many cases, health officials can’t make direct connections between those infected, leading them to suspect that there are unknown infections in the wild. In other words: they don’t know where the infections are coming from.
In the UK, many of the infections are thought to be spreading through sexual contact between men, which is a new form of transmission.
It is not known how any of these people contracted the virus. Transmission is thought to occur mainly through virus-laced droplets, but direct contact with lesions or bodily fluids from an infected person, or indirect contact via contaminated clothing or linens, can also result in transmission.
The fact that there are two apparently unconnected clusters suggests there may be more than one chain of transmission in the country, each of which could contain additional cases that haven’t yet been detected. Van Kerkhove, who leads the emerging diseases and zoonoses unit in the WHO’s Health Emergencies Program, said virus sequencing is underway in the U.K. to try to determine if the cases are genetically linked.
There is also a 2013 study indicating that monkeypox could become airborne and remain active in the air for up to 90 hours.
Should I be worried?
Probably not. There are a small number of known cases so far and the fatality rate in the developed world is low. That said, epidemiologists are concerned. Stay tuned to Unprepared and we’ll keep you posted if the situation becomes something we think you should prepare for.
In the meantime, you have far more likely things to prepare for:
And if you’re concerned about infectious diseases, check out Ari Allyn-Feuer’s guide to reducing COVID risk in your home.