As the name implies, monkeypox is a disease that primarily affects monkeys, but occasionally, can also jump to humans. Initial symptoms include fever, headache, and muscle pains, which is followed by a rash and blisters all over the body. It’s caused by a virus that’s closely related to smallpox.
It’s not a new disease. The virus was first reported in monkeys in a lab in the 1950s and jumped to humans as early as 1970. Since then, there have been several small-scale outbreaks. There are two main strains of monkeypox: a milder Western African strain, which has an untreated fatality rate of 1%, and a much worse Congo strain which has a fatality rate of around 10%. Thankfully, the cases detected so far appear to be the milder strain, but this still makes the severity comparable to COVID-19. There’s also the off-chance this could be a new strain, but so far, there is nothing to confirm this.
How quickly is monkeypox spreading?
At the time of this writing, 141 cases have been confirmed, according to a list of reports compiled by Moritz Kraemer at the University of Oxford, John Brownstein at Boston Children’s Hospital, and their colleagues — but the number is rising rapidly. So far, cases have been discovered in the US, UK, Canada, Sweden, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Belgium, and France.
Currently, the cases are doubling every two days, which brings back creepy early-2020 memories, and researchers are concerned that many other cases are going undetected.
Thankfully, though, monkeypox doesn’t seem to spread nearly as easily as COVID-19. Monkeypox requires close contact and appears to only spread through larger droplets (whereas COVID-19 was also shown to spread through aerosols). This means you need to be really close to someone to pass the monkeypox. The disease could also be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact or by eating undercooked meat from an infected animal.
“Respiratory droplets generally cannot travel more than a few feet, so prolonged face-to-face contact is required,” the CDC says. “Other human-to-human methods of transmission include direct contact with body fluids or lesion material, and indirect contact with lesion material, such as through contaminated clothing or linens.”
Should you be worried?
The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) says the risk to the public remains very low, and other health agencies have mirrored the same appeal. However, as cases are rising so quickly, some researchers are calling on the World Health Organization to call a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), and the WHO may soon be scheduling a meeting to discuss this.
However, it’s not clear if the cases are all linked to each other, and authorities hope that through quick contact tracing, this outbreak of monkeypox can be contained just like the few previous ones; but it is currently unclear if this will turn out to be the case. So far, the threat does not point to a pandemic like the COVID-19 one, but authorities and researchers remain on alert to see if the concerning growth will continue.
Do we have any cure for monkeypox?
Ironically, our success against smallpox may be paving the way for new outbreaks of monkeypox. The two viruses are pretty similar and the smallpox vaccine is 85% effective at preventing monkeypox. However, since smallpox was officially eradicated, routine smallpox vaccinations in the US (and several other countries) were stopped decades ago. It appears that monkeypox is appearing in younger people who have not been vaccinated.
There are also potential treatments, in particular the antiviral drug tecovirimat (also sold under its brand name Tpoxx). However, while the vaccine is approved in Europe for treating smallpox as well as monkeypox, in the US it is only approved for smallpox. Nevertheless, should the situation take a turn for the worse, the drug will likely also be used in the US. Still, this drug is primarily focused on relieving symptoms, and is not a cure for the infection per se.
Ultimately, it’s hard to say just how bad this outbreak will get, but if there’s something we’ve learned in the past two years, it’s that it’s so easy to fall prey to a pandemic that taking extra precautions and paying extra attention is justified. In fact, some researchers (in particular, the authors of a 2018 paper) have signaled the growing danger of monkeypox. Their paper at the time concluded:
“The monkeypox virus is considered a high threat pathogen causing a disease of public health importance. Therefore, there is an urgent need to focus on building surveillance capacities which will provide valuable information for designing appropriate prevention, preparedness and response activities.”
Andrei's background is in geophysics, and he's been fascinated by it ever since he was a child. Feeling that there is a gap between scientists and the general audience, he started ZME Science -- and the results are what you see today.