The viral disease, monkeypox, is spreading around the globe with the World Health Organization and the United States both declaring it a global public health emergency. According to the CDC, there are currently over 7,000 known cases in the United States and 26,000 worldwide.
And as case counts continue to rise and the headlines get more alarming, you might be worried that monkeypox could be the next Covid-19 — a virus that disrupted and threatened millions of lives. The good news is that monkeypox is much less contagious and less deadly than Covid, and there are already vaccines and treatments to slow the spread. But while monkeypox is less threatening than Covid, the symptoms can be painful. So, we spoke with a doctor about monkeypox and got answers to some common questions.
So, what is monkeypox and where did it come from?
Monkeypox was first discovered in monkeys in 1958 and later in humans in the early 1970s. The virus is an infection that stems from the same family as smallpox. And while they both have similar symptoms, monkeypox is much milder and less likely to cause death in comparison.
In May of this year, the World Health Organization learned of a confirmed case of monkeypox in Britain from a man who had traveled to Nigeria. On May 18, the first confirmed case in the United States was found in a man from Massachusetts. Nearly two months later, New York and California declared states of emergency, with those two states having the largest outbreaks to date.
How does monkeypox spread and is it contagious?
Monkeypox spreads through skin-to-skin contact between two people. Most infections in this current outbreak have spread through close interactions during sex.
“For those who have intimate partner contact with an infected individual with active lesions, the risk for transmission is high,” said Dr. Soumi Eachempati, former professor of surgery and public health at Weill Cornell Medical College and Co-Founder and CEO of CLEARED4. “Naturally, the risk goes up with multiple partners in this regard. Homosexuals may be the current majority of cases of monkeypox, but it has also been seen in the heterosexual and transgender population.”
Close interaction between two individuals like skin contact, hugging or face-to-face contact can also transmit the virus. Though monkeypox can spread sexually, that is not the primary mode, close skin to skin contact is, which is why the infection has not been labelled a sexually transmitted infection.
What are the symptoms?
Like many viral diseases, symptoms of monkeypox can include: fever, chills, body aches, fatigue and headaches. However, a defining characteristic is the rash that forms. “While monkeypox can have peripheral lesions and lymph node swelling, the main lesions would be in the groin,” said Dr. Eachempati.
The rash can find its way to other parts of the body where skin-to-skin contact with an infected person might have occurred. This could include the mouth, chest and the anus. The rash that forms can present itself in a mild manner causing an itching and burning feeling that eventually subsides. However, some individuals have described the pain as excruciating and debilitating, and doctors have prescribed patients gabapentin, a medication used to treat pain from shingles. The individual is also contagious as long as the rash continues, which in some cases can be up to one month. That means the rash has to turn into a scab and then that scab has to fall off, oftentimes leaving a large scar.
Monkeypox looks very similar to Hand, Foot and Mouth Disease. How do I tell the difference?
For parents unsure or concerned their child might have contracted monkeypox, Dr. Eachempati said child-to-child spread would be considered very unusual. “ Monkeypox lesions are often in anogenital areas. Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease (HFMD) has lesions only in these three areas, hand, foot, and mouth,” he said.
And while monkeypox could still present itself in the hand, foot and mouth region, having your child’s pediatrician inspect any rash that may be troubling is a great preventive measure. Also maintaining a good hygiene routine like washing hands after using the bathroom, and keeping bed linens as clean as possible, as monkeypox has possibly been transmitted to children from the bedsheets of infected adults, according to Dr. Eachempati.
How do you keep yourself safe?
Proper hygiene and being aware of who you come into close contact with is important.
“Monkeypox is no risk at this time to the general public who does not interact with an infected individual,” said Dr. Eachempati. “This disease is not like Covid in that it can not be spread by aerosolization.”
There are vaccines and tests for monkeypox, and while not widely available due to shortages and government rules, speak with your doctor or pediatrician if you have any concerns you might have come in contact with someone who has monkeypox. If you are infected, the CDC recommends isolating at home and staying away from other people until you are no longer contagious, which in some cases is one month.
“Hospitalizations are rare,” said Dr. Eachempati. “Prevention of further spread will require education and vaccination efforts to those at risk of contracting the disease.”