everyday science

so, let’s talk (and try not to panic) about monkeypox

So, it looks like there’s another virus we should fight with. This time — yeah, you’ve heard about it — it’s monkeypox. With more than 100 confirmed cases in 12 countries in the European/US neighborhood, what can we do? Should we be worried?

 What is it?

Monkeypox is a virus similar to smallpox but is less deadly and less transmissible.
Endemic to western and central Africa, the virus was first discovered in laboratory monkeys 64 years ago (in 1958)—hence the name— yet it is thought it is transmitted from wild animals such as rodents to people — or other infected humans.

What are the symptoms?

The incubation period (number of days between when you’re infected and first symptoms) in monkeypox infection is ranging from 5 to 21 days.
The symptoms usually start after a week or two with fever, headaches, exhaustion, aching muscles, and swelling lymph nodes. A person infected with monkeypox develops distinctive fluid-filled lesions and itchy rash mainly on the face, hands, and feet.

How does it transmit?

Monkeypox is thought to spread from close contact with bodily fluids, such as saliva from coughing.
Unlike the virus that causes COVID-19, which can spread asymptomatically via aerosols, monkeypox does not usually go unnoticed when it infects a person, in part because of the skin lesions it causes.

Is there a treatment?

Most people recover from monkeypox in a few weeks without any treatment (note that the disease can be more severe in young children, pregnant women, and immunocompromised people). There’s no proven treatment for monkeypox specifically, however, because it is related to the smallpox virus, there are already antiviral treatments and vaccines on hand.
Health-care workers would probably use a ‘ring vaccination’ to curb transmission — inoculation of close contacts of those infected with monkeypox.

Can we prevent the infection?

The CDC says to avoid contact with animals that could carry the virus (including animals that are sick or that have been found dead in areas where monkeypox occurs).
Avoid contact with any materials, such as bedding or towels, that have been in contact with a sick animal or a person. Isolate infected patients from others who could be at risk for infection.

Is it new, though?

Actually, no. Most previous outbreaks that emerged after smallpox eradication in the 1970s (thanks to an unprecedented global immunization campaign) were centralized in Africa. Until now, that is.
Monkeypox is rarely transmitted to other continents — and when it does, outbreaks are so small, they’re measured in single digits. Scientists are closely looking at how current European and US outbreaks are developing.

Should I be worried?

This is a tricky one to answer because any new, unexpected viral behavior is worrying.
Yet, while scientists are surprised by the unusual pattern of the current spread and rightfully concerned by it — they are not panicked. So maybe, this time, we should actually listen to those who are really trying to help us and act accordingly.

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