Let’s be honest. The name sounds like something cooked up around a Hollywood writer’s table. Monkeypox. It’s the kind of villain that can help transform a sleepy summertime thriller into a blockbuster.
Yet here we are, worrying about monkeypox in REAL life. And while we’re still fighting our way out of the COVID-19 pandemic, many folks are understandably feeling confused and more than a little overwhelmed.
But it’s time to take a deep breath. Because, despite the media frenzy, the truth is monkeypox is NOT a COVID-19 type of illness.
The press loves a good scare. After all, it keeps us glued to their stations and scrolling through their websites. But monkeypox is still an extremely rare disease. And although it often gets mentioned in the same sentence as smallpox, the infection is usually far less severe and less transmissible.
The truth about monkeypox
Today, I will dive into some of the most common questions I’m being asked about monkeypox to help set the record straight. And most importantly, to help put your mind at ease in the face of all the hype.
First things first. We are experiencing a worldwide outbreak of monkeypox right now.
Typically, the disease is seen in the tropical rainforest areas of Central and West Africa. But what’s different about this outbreak is that the infection is now popping up in countries that don’t usually have cases.
It’s a moving target, but at last count, there were around 250 cases of monkeypox reported in at least 16 countries, according to the World Health Organization.
What is monkeypox?
Monkeypox is what scientists call a “viral zoonotic disease.” That simply means it’s an infection that can be transmitted between species, from animals to humans.
Monkeypox is part of the same family of viruses that smallpox comes from. But, as I mentioned earlier, the infections are typically far less serious. Severe and deadly cases are very rare. In fact, the mortality rate for this strain is just one percent. And the disease is not as contagious as smallpox.
The virus got its name in 1958 after the first cases were seen in monkeys being used for research. But, ironically, monkeys are not major carriers of the disease. The first human case was identified in 1970.
What are the symptoms?
Monkeypox is a mild illness in the vast majority of people. The symptoms usually start to show up within a week or two after being exposed.
The illness typically starts with flu-like symptoms, including fever, chills, aches and pains, fatigue, headache, and swollen lymph nodes. A rash develops within a few days, usually on the face first. But it can spread to other parts of the body.
The rash then progresses into lesions then fluid-filled blisters that eventually turn into crusty scabs that fall off. The illness typically clears up within two to four weeks.
How does monkeypox spread?
Despite the media-induced panic, the truth is monkeypox requires close personal contact to spread. It’s much less transmissible than the coronavirus behind COVID-19, for example. And the West African strain that’s circulating right now is the less contagious of the two varieties of the virus.
Monkeypox is spread through…
- body fluids (including blood and sexual contact)
- close skin-to-skin contact or with contaminated items like bedding
- respiratory droplets during direct and prolonged face-to-face contact
In other words, this isn’t a disease you will catch by passing someone on the street. You’d have to be sitting or standing close to an infected person with lesions in their mouth for an extended period of time to potentially catch the virus.
People with monkeypox should quarantine for 21 days to keep it from spreading. And they should follow up with anyone they’ve had close contact with.
If you have had close exposure to the body fluids, skin-to-skin contact, or exposure to the clothing or bedding of someone with monkeypox, you should also self-isolate for three weeks. This can help reduce the spread of the disease.
What can I do to stay safe?
I have good news for anyone who has had a smallpox vaccination (many seniors fall into this group). The vaccine is estimated to be around 85 percent effective against monkeypox. And some research shows the vaccine could remain at least somewhat effective for decades.
But the truth is most of us aren’t going to be at high risk for monkeypox anyway. The media hype has a lot of folks frightened. But the phrase “much ado about nothing” comes to mind.
Officials have a strong hunch that sexual contact traced back to some people who attended a couple of European raves is behind the initial outbreak. And as I’ve already mentioned, close and extended contact is generally needed to transmit the virus.
Anyone who lives in the US who has definitely come into contact with someone with monkeypox is considered “high risk.” And the government is currently in the process of releasing some monkeypox vaccines from our stockpile for those folks.
Since monkeypox can be transmitted from animals to humans, you should be extra vigilant about handwashing if you have frequent contact with living or dead wild animals.
But for the rest (and vast majority) of us, the same common-sense measures that we’re already taking to reduce our COVID-19 risk do double duty for monkeypox. Masking, regular hand washing, and social distancing can drastically reduce your already low odds of catching this low transmission virus.
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