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By Isabelle Banin
While the current monkeypox outbreak is the first instance of this disease spreading rapidly on a global scale, the risk to the general public is low, according to infectious disease experts.
As of May 26, nine cases of monkeypox in the United States have been confirmed in seven states. Globally, more than 229 cases have been confirmed in 119 countries. Currently, no cases are suspected in Illinois.
In the past, the disease was mostly spread from infected animals to humans in Central and West Africa, where the disease is endemic to animals. Cases that spread to other countries were linked to international travel or exportation of infected animals, with very little transmission outside of these initial cases.
It is not clear how the recent cases of infected individuals were exposed to the virus, but a large portion of cases include people who self-identify as men who have sex with men, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC emphasizes, however, that anyone can contract the virus.
Here, Jonathan Pinsky, MD, Medical Director of Infection Control, Edward Hospital, answers common questions about monkeypox:
What is monkeypox? Monkeypox is a virus causing symptoms that are similar to smallpox, though less severe. Symptoms start with fever, followed by a rash and swollen lymph nodes within days. The rash starts as red bumps, then forms fluid filled blisters, followed by pustules. These pustules contain live virus and eventually break, scab over and fall off when new skin is formed underneath.
There are several features that distinguish monkeypox from chickenpox. Chickenpox rash are small fluid blisters over a red base that crust and appear at different stages at different times, unlike monkeypox lesions that are all in the same stages at the same time. Shingles looks like chickenpox but shows up in a confined dermatome on one side of the body.
There are two strains of the monkeypox virus: one out of Central Africa and another from West Africa that is less severe. This current outbreak is linked to the less severe West African virus, which has a mortality rate of about 3 percent. People generally recover in 2-4 weeks, and healthy children and adults are less likely to become severely ill.
How does it spread? Monkeypox can be spread through contact with breaks in the skin (even if these breaks are not visible), body fluids and large respiratory droplets. These droplets are large and don’t travel far, but could be spread through close face-to-face contact. The virus can also live on contaminated bedding and surfaces, and be transmitted through contact with infected material.
The virus can’t be spread by asymptomatic people, which makes it significantly easier to contact trace, isolate infected people, quarantine exposed people, and contain the outbreak compared with COVID-19.
To prevent spread, avoid contact with people who have symptoms, clean hands often with soap, and be on the lookout for symptoms. If you develop a rash and other symptoms, contact your healthcare provider immediately. Since the virus can jump between species, if you believe you may have monkeypox or were in contact with someone who may have it, avoid contact with all animals.
Can it be treated? There are currently no treatments specifically for monkeypox, however, the smallpox vaccine is around 85 percent effective at preventing monkeypox. People who received the vaccine and become infected with monkeypox are more likely to have mild symptoms, even if they received the vaccine decades ago. The FDA currently has two smallpox vaccines approved and production of the vaccine is being increased.
Luckily, monkeypox symptoms take up to 12 days to develop and receiving the smallpox vaccination in the days after exposure can prevent its development or lesson severity of symptoms.