Since May, monkeypox— a virus typically found in Central and West Africa— has spread to 63 countries, including the U.S. As of July, there are currently almost ten thousand cases around the world and 651 cases in New York.
Prof. John S.L. Parker, virology, said that despite the recent rise in cases— which may alarm people in the wake of the COVID pandemic— monkeypox is not likely to pose a new pandemic.
“The first thing is that there’s nothing new about monkeypox,” Parker said. While first discovered in lab monkeys in 1958, the primary carriers of monkeypox today are rodents. The virus is commonly spread by human contact with infected animals through animal bites, feces or uncooked meat.
Monkeypox is part of the orthopoxviruses, a specific family of viruses transmitted through animal-to-human contact, The first human monkeypox case originated in Congo in 1970. Since then, periodic outbreaks of monkeypox, from a few hundred to over a thousand cases, have occurred across Africa.
“These viruses have been infecting people in West Africa and Central Africa for a long time,” Parker said. “It’s always scary and serious when it affects you, but not so much when it’s somebody in Africa, which reflects our cultural biases.”
Although monkeypox outbreaks outside of Africa are rare, Parker noted that outbreaks have occurred in the U.S. Namely, the 2003 outbreak across the midwest, with Wisconsin accounting for more than half of the cases, due to the import of West African exotic animals.
Recent monkeypox cases have spread mostly through human-to-human contact, rather than animal-to-human contact, due to contact with infected items or droplets, in addition to during and after the incubation period.
The cases have also been mostly occuring in men engaging in intercoruse with other men, most likely through sexual contact by infected lesions, according to Parker. However, Parker said, monkeypox can easily spread to all individuals through contact.
Someone who contracts monkeypox normally experiences symptoms within six to 13 days, but symptoms can take up to three weeks to manifest. These may include fever, headaches, back and muscle aches, swollen lymph nodes and exhaustion. One to three days after contracting fever, painful pus-filled rashes appear and spread onto the body for five to seven days. After two to four weeks, the rashes scab over and are no longer infectious.
Although children and individuals with immunodeficiencies contract more severe cases, monkeypox is rarely fatal.
Unlike COVID-19, monkeypox is only spread by direct contact with infected material, resulting in slower transmission, and it only becomes infectious once an individual develops symptoms. The unique rashes of monkeypox also allow for easier identification, as opposed to COVID-19, which could be easily mistaken for a cold or flu.
Fortunately, according to Parker, there are several measures to counteract the monkeypox cases.
As scientists are currently sequencing the virus to determine its mutations, infectiousness, severity and other traits, antiviral drugs, such as Cidofovir and Tecovirimat, can be taken to manage symptoms. Similar procedures taken against COVID-19— social distancing, frequent hand-washing and surface disinfection— can also be employed to stop the spread of monkeypox.
Parker explained that smallpox vaccines, known as Jynneos and ACAM2000, help develop immunity against monkeypox. After the eradication of smallpox in 1972, U.S. health officials stopped administering Jynneos, resulting in the infection of other orthopoxviruses. However, these officials recently allowed states to provide these vaccines to individuals exposed to monkeypox.
The vaccines are effective before and after exposure to monkeypox. They both contain the vaccinia virus, a poxvirus closely related to smallpox and monkeypox. As an individual is given the vaccine, their body produces an immune response against the virus, thus protecting them from monkeypox.
Parker said that outbreaks of other viruses like monkeypox may occur more frequently due to the expansion of international traveling, since it allows for easier contact with foreign viruses. Urbanization and deforestation also specifically results in the increase in zoonotic-virus carrying animals and the contact between them and humans.
“Infections in parts of the world we don’t live in, we think don’t affect us,” Parker said. “We need to start realizing that [these issues] can [eventually] affect people right here at home.”