On Saturday, the World Health Organization issued the highest level of alert for the virus, describing it as a public health emergency of international concern. 75 countries and regions have reported more than 16,000 cases of monkeypox so far, nearly five times the number reported to the World Health Organization in June.
The Biden administration is considering a similar announcement for the United States, where more than 2,500 cases of monkeypox have been reported in 44 states, Washington, DC and Puerto Rico.
There is still a lot of confusion about the virus, especially with its rapid spread: Who is at risk? How worried should you be? What can you do to protect yourself, especially with so many people still suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic? Should you get a vaccine?
Here’s what you need to know:
What are the symptoms of monkeypox disease?
The virus itself is not new: it has historically spread at low levels in parts of West and Central Africa. The current outbreak is unusual because monkeypox is not usually found in Europe and North America at all.
The infection typically lasts two to four weeks, and often begins with flu-like symptoms — including fever, muscle aches, headache, chills, fatigue, and swollen lymph nodes — according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms can develop into a rash with raised, red bumps on the skin, which then turn into pus-filled blisters before eventually drying and flaking off.
This rash can develop all over your body, including your face, hands, feet, genitals, and inside the mouth, says the CDC.
The severity of these symptoms can vary between individuals, says Dr. Cindy Prins, an epidemiologist at the University of Florida. Some infected people may develop a widespread rash, she says, while others may not develop one at all.
Monkeypox isn’t a particularly deadly virus: Only five deaths have been reported worldwide so far, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says more than 99% of those infected can expect to survive. Prins says that getting infected can be a very distressing experience, especially depending on where on the body the infection is.
How do I know if I’m at risk of getting monkeypox?
Prinz says monkeypox often spreads Through prolonged skin-to-skin contact with an infected person with a lesion. It can also spread through bodily fluids, bed sheets, clothing and other contaminated items.
Technically, the virus can also be transmitted through respiratory droplets from coughing, sneezing or talking, Prins adds — but you have to be in close contact with an infected person for several hours for that transmission to occur.
This means that it is not considered a sexually transmitted disease. But about 99% of cases in the United States are related to male-to-male sexual contact, according to the World Health Organization. The organization noted that most of the reported cases are in men, often those considered gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men. The World Health Organization added that transgender people and sex workers may also be at risk.
You’re primarily at risk if you have sex with multiple or anonymous partners, says Dr. Beth Tillen, a faculty member in the Department of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at the University of Minnesota School of Medicine. She warns against stigmatizing gay and bisexual men, asserting that anyone – including women and children – can get monkeypox by coming into contact with infected people or material.
“I want people who may not be involved in those dangerous activities to know that they can still get it,” Thelin says. “It’s no reason to think they’re not at all at risk.”
What can I do to protect myself?
The CDC recommends avoiding skin-to-skin contact in people with a monkeypox-like rash. You should also refrain from sharing eating utensils or cups with these people, and touching potentially contaminated items such as bedding, clothing, and towels until you have had time to wash your clothes.
Use caution at social gatherings — including rave parties or clubs with minimal clothing and a lot of skin-to-skin contact and enclosed spaces like saunas or sex clubs — and wash your hands often with soap and water or alcohol-based hand sanitizer, the agency adds.
Thielen says that sexually active individuals — especially those at high risk — should consider temporarily changing their activities. Prins recommends talking to your partner or associates about their risk of infection, and whether or not they have been exposed to the virus.
If you develop symptoms or learn you’ve been infected, call your health care provider right away to determine if you should get tested, Prins says. It should also be isolated at home while it is actively infected, to avoid spreading it to others.
Should I get the monkeypox vaccine?
The CDC recommends vaccination for people who are at high risk, or who have already been exposed to monkeypox virus. The agency says that vaccinating four to 14 days after exposure may not prevent disease, but it can help reduce any symptoms you may have.
If you don’t fall into either category, you probably don’t need to be vaccinated — at least, for now. “We don’t have the resources to vaccinate the entire population,” Tellin says. “We design vaccination strategies specifically for people who are most at risk.”
Currently, there are two types of monkeypox vaccine available in the United States, the first being the smallpox vaccine: Previous data from Africa suggests that it is at least 85% effective in preventing monkeypox, according to the CDC.
The second is a vaccine called Jynneos that is “better tolerated,” which means people experience less serious side effects from it, says Dr. Dean Bloomberg, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at UC Davis Health.
Bloomberg says the supply of Jynneos is relatively limited, which helps explain the vaccine shortages seen across the United States. More shots on the way from Denmark, where Jynneos is made: Last week, the Department of Health and Human Services said an additional 786,000 doses had been prepared for shipment and deployment in the United States by the end of the month.
For now, if you’re struggling to find available vaccines near you, try clinics that treat or screen for sexually transmitted infections, Thelin advises. Prins also recommends visiting outpatient clinics if appointments are not available, and checking frequently for new appointments to open.
“More vaccines are coming, so those appointments should open up more and more over the next month or so,” Prins says.
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