A case of monkeypox in an adult male was confirmed by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) on May 18, 2022. In less than two years, there have been three verified cases of the uncommon virus in the United States. The final two cases occurred in 2021 in Texas and Maryland in patients who had just returned from and been to Nigeria.
Because the patient had only visited Canada and not Africa, where monkeypox is endemic, the DPH’s most recent notification received more attention than normal. Furthermore, there have been 68 confirmed instances of monkeypox throughout Europe, including the United Kingdom, Portugal, Spain, and other nations.
The COVID-19 pandemic is still fresh in so many people’s minds that the thought of a new global disease outbreak may feel both terrifying and all too likely.
But first, let’s take a moment to explain what monkeypox is, how it spreads, and how much risk it poses before you start loading up on toilet paper once more.
Monkeypox: What Is It?
A viral infection called monkeypox initially manifests as a standard set of flu-like symptoms, including fever, chills, and body pains. Additionally, tiredness and enlarged lymph nodes may result. However, a pimple-like rash that can cover the entire body, including the palms and soles of the afflicted person’s feet, is by far its most noticeable sign. Monkeypox has an incubation period of five to twelve days, and the illness typically lasts for two to three weeks.
The smallpox and cowpox viruses are both members of the Orthopoxvirus family, which also contains the monkeypox virus. Even though all of these viruses are dangerous, monkeypox is much less virulent than smallpox despite having symptoms that are similar.
According to Dr. Andrea McCollum, an epidemiologist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), monkeypox has so far resulted in an 11 percent mortality rate in people who have never received a smallpox vaccination.
The distinction of being the first illness to be completely wiped out by a modern vaccine belongs to smallpox. In 1967, the World Health Organization (WHO) began a comprehensive immunization campaign. The virus was deemed functionally eradicated by 1980 after the final known infection, which occurred in Somalia in 1977. The CDC estimates that the smallpox vaccine has an 85 percent effectiveness rate against monkeypox.
However, the monkeypox virus has not been wiped out. Since governments have stopped administering smallpox vaccinations due to the global success in eradicating the disease, fewer people are immune to monkeypox as well. Numerous outbreaks of monkeypox have resulted from this throughout central and west Africa. In 2020, there were up to 4,600 instances in the Congo alone, according to a February 2022 report published.
But how and from where does monkeypox originate?
Monkeypox: How Does It Spread?
Monkeypox, despite its name, is not typically spread by monkeys; the name was given after the virus was originally identified from a monkey colony in 1958. Usually, small rodents like dormice, rats, and tree and rope squirrels spread the infection. While some sort of rodent seems likely, scientists have not yet determined which species is the disease’s natural reservoir.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the first case of monkeypox in humans was documented in 1970. The majority of monkeypox outbreaks still occur in the DRC and other Central and West African nations, including Nigeria. Cases typically appear in rural, highly forested areas. These are people who often hunt wild animals or come into contact with them in the forest, according to McCollum.
Once a person has monkeypox, they can spread it to other people by breathing droplets or coming into contact with skin sores. It can stay on surfaces but is far less airborne infectious than COVID-19 or other respiratory viruses. Close relatives or caregivers of those who have monkeypox are typically more at risk of contracting the disease. Animal-to-human transmission can also happen if a person eats sick bush meat or gets bitten or scratched by an infected animal.
So how likely is it that monkeypox will spread globally? In conclusion, it’s unlikely, but we should still exercise caution.
According to the U.K. Health Security Agency (UKHSA), seven of the eight confirmed cases in the U.K., like the patient in Massachusetts, had never been to Africa and had no contact with the lone patient who was known to have visited Nigeria. That might indicate they contracted the virus in England. More than half of the cases in London, according to the UKHSA, involve gay or bisexual men. It exhorts homosexual and bisexual men to be alert for any strange rashes or lesions and to get in touch with a sexual health agency right once.
Dr. Susan Hopkins, the main medical advisor for UKHSA, stated in a statement on Monday, May 16, “This [outbreak] is exceptional and unusual.” The evidence implies that the monkeypox virus may be disseminated in the population through close contact, so UKHSA is moving quickly to investigate the origins of these illnesses.
Inger Damon, M.D., Ph.D., stated in a statement that “many of these global reports of monkeypox cases are occurring within sexual networks.” Having studied the poxvirus for more than 20 years, Damon is the director of the CDC’s High-Consequence Pathogens and Pathology division. “However, medical professionals should be aware of any rash that exhibits characteristics of monkeypox. If somebody notices a new rash and is worried they may have monkeypox, we urge them to call their doctor.”
A monkeypox outbreak had already occurred in the United States, according to McCollum. It was mistakenly introduced into the country in 2003 as part of the “pocket pet” trade together with a number of other small West African mammals. The creatures, which also included huge Gambian pouched rats, were kept with a band of prairie dogs who were also meant for the pet trade.
Prairie dogs are known for spreading zoonotic diseases, such as bubonic plague, through their fleas; the little rodents were simple prey for the monkeypox virus. The Wisconsin family purchased the sick prairie dogs from Phil’s Pocket Pets in Villa Park, Illinois.
In the end, the infection spread to over 45 persons in six states. The CDC had to use some backup smallpox vaccines that the U.S. government had kept on hand in anticipation of a bioterrorism assault as a result of the outbreak. A dose of the smallpox vaccination can provide some immunity due to the comparable physiology of the smallpox and monkeypox viruses.
Fortunately, the 2003 outbreak did not result in any fatalities. The incident did, however, result in a prohibition on the trade in West African rodents, including gigantic pouched rats from the Gambia.
Is There a Vaccine for Monkey Pox?
To combat a monkeypox outbreak today, the U.S. wouldn’t necessarily need to draw from its smallpox vaccine stocks. Jynneos, the Federal Drug Administration’s first-ever monkeypox vaccine, was authorized in 2019. Similar to the smallpox vaccine, it induces an immune response by using an attenuated or weakened form of the vaccinia virus, a similar poxvirus.
Anyone above the age of 18 can receive the one-shot vaccine, which also protects against smallpox. Jynneos is a component of the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) of life-saving medications that are ready for use in a public health emergency or by anyone who has been assessed to be at a high risk of contracting smallpox or monkeypox.
With so many new instances during this outbreak, scientists are worried that the virus may be changing and mutating, just like COVID-19 has. The outbreak in Europe, where cases seem to have been contracted through sexual contact, raises the possibility of a new mode of transmission. This has entirely new ramifications for how to handle and contain any outbreak of monkeypox.
Because of how linked our world is, a small-scale disease in one area can readily spread to another. It’s a good illustration of how diseases know no boundaries, claims McCollum.