Monkeypox has recently been making headlines as cases of the viral infection surge globally. With over 57,000 confirmed cases across more than 80 countries as of August 2022, monkeypox has undeniably gone from a rare disease to a rapidly spreading public health concern.
But how dangerous is this disease really? What are the chances of dying or having long-term health issues from monkeypox? And who is most at risk from this viral infection?
What Exactly Is Monkeypox?
Monkeypox is a rare disease caused by infection from the monkeypox virus. Monkeypox is not related to chickenpox, despite the similar-sounding name. Instead, it is most closely related to smallpox, a devastating disease that plagued humans for centuries until its eradication in 1980.
The monkeypox virus belongs to a family of viruses called orthopoxviruses. Other viruses in this family include smallpox, cowpox, and vaccinia viruses.
Monkeypox was first discovered in 1958 when outbreaks occurred in colonies of monkeys kept for research. The first human case was recorded in 1970 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Since then, most cases have occurred in central and western African countries where the virus is endemic.
The current outbreak is the first time monkeypox has spread widely in countries outside of Africa. Researchers are still investigating the exact origin of the current outbreak.
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What Are the Symptoms of Monkeypox?
Monkeypox causes a distinctive rash along with other symptoms. According to the CDC, the most common symptoms are:
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Muscle aches
- A rash that goes through several stages before scabbing over and falling off
The rash typically starts within 1-3 days of the onset of fever. The rash often begins on the face and spreads to other parts of the body.
Lesions from monkeypox are firm, deep-seated, and well-circumscribed. The lesions may umbilicate or crust over.
Monkeypox symptoms usually start within 6-13 days after exposure, but can take up to 21 days to appear. Most people recover within 2-4 weeks.
How Deadly Is Monkeypox?
Most cases of monkeypox do not result in death. The case fatality ratio for monkeypox is typically less than 10% in Africa, and even lower in developed countries.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the West African strain of monkeypox virus has a case fatality rate of about 1%. The Congo Basin strain, which has been detected in the current outbreak, has a higher mortality rate of up to 10%.
However, no deaths have been reported in the current outbreak outside of Africa so far.
As of August 2022, out of more than 57,000 confirmed monkeypox cases globally, at least 22 deaths have been reported. This represents a death rate of about 0.04%.
Experts believe the lower fatality rate compared to previous outbreaks could be due to earlier detection, isolation of cases, and more widespread availability of vaccines and antiviral treatments. Improved living conditions and better access to healthcare may also play a role.
Who Is Most at Risk from Monkeypox?
Most people infected with monkeypox will experience only mild to moderate symptoms and make a full recovery. However, some groups may be more vulnerable to severe disease or complications.
Individuals with weakened immune systems due to illnesses like HIV/AIDS, leukemia and lymphoma, organ transplantation, or immunosuppressive medications may be more likely to get very ill or die.
Other risk factors include:
- Children, especially those under 8 years of age
- Pregnant women – Monkeypox can lead to complications during pregnancy or cause the baby to get infected.
- People with atopic dermatitis or eczema – The rash and lesions can be especially painful and severe.
- People with respiratory conditions like asthma or bronchitis – Monkeypox lesions in the throat can obstruct breathing.
How Does Monkeypox Spread?
Monkeypox mainly spreads through direct physical contact with an infected individual. Contact with body fluids, monkeypox rash or scabs, clothing or linens used by an infected person can transmit the virus.
Less common routes of transmission include:
- Respiratory droplets or oral fluids from an infected person (requires prolonged face-to-face contact)
- Contact with infected animals or their body fluids – Primarily rodents and primates in Africa where the disease is endemic.
- From mother to fetus via the placenta
- Handling contaminated needles or shared personal items like clothing or bedding
The virus can also spread by asymptomatic infection through close contact. However, asymptomatic cases are less likely to transmit the disease.
Monkeypox is not nearly as contagious as infections like the flu or COVID-19. Casual interactions are very unlikely to spread the disease.
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What’s the Current Situation with the Monkeypox Outbreak?
The first cases in the current outbreak were reported in early May 2022. Since then, over 57,000 cases have been confirmed globally across more than 80 countries.
The outbreak has primarily affected gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men. However, anyone can get infected if they have close physical contact with someone who is contagious.
The countries with the highest case counts so far include:
- United States – over 21,000 cases
- Spain – over 6,300 cases
- Brazil – over 4,300 cases
- Germany – over 3,900 cases
- United Kingdom – over 3,500 cases
However, the number of infections is likely higher than what is being reported. The outbreak is evolving rapidly and the case count continues to grow every week.
The WHO has declared monkeypox a global health emergency, its highest alert level. However, experts believe that concerted public health measures can still contain the outbreak. Vaccination and treatment are also now more widely available.
How to Reduce Your Risk of Getting Monkeypox
While the current risk to the general public is low, you can take some precautions to protect yourself from monkeypox:
- Avoid close physical contact with people who may have monkeypox. This includes hugging, kissing, sexual contact, or touching fabrics and objects they have used.
- Practice good hand hygiene by washing hands frequently with soap and water or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
- Use personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks and gloves if caring for someone who has monkeypox.
- Avoid contact with animals that could be infected, like rodents and primates from Africa.
- Limit sexual partners and avoid anonymous sex during outbreaks. Using condoms does not fully protect against skin-to-skin infections like monkeypox.
- Get vaccinated if you are in an eligible at-risk group. The smallpox/monkeypox vaccine can prevent infection if given within 4 days to 2 weeks of exposure.
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When to Seek Medical Care for Monkeypox
Seek prompt medical attention if you develop an unexplained rash, especially if you also have fever, swollen lymph nodes, muscle aches, exhaustion, or other monkeypox symptoms. Be sure to mention any potential exposure to someone with confirmed or suspected monkeypox.
You should also seek emergency care right away for any severe symptoms like:
- Trouble breathing
- Chest pain
- Loss of consciousness
- Inability to swallow
Antiviral treatment works best when started quickly after monkeypox symptoms begin. Vaccination, testing, and contact tracing can also help curb further spread of the virus.
The Bottom Line
While monkeypox is painful and disruptive, most cases are mild and not life-threatening. The current strains have a low fatality rate, especially in countries with modern healthcare systems.
By staying informed, taking preventive steps, and seeking care if sick, we can contain further spread while this outbreak runs its course. Routine vaccination and sound public health measures brought smallpox under control in the past, and experts are confident we can do the same for monkeypox.
While monkeypox headlines may seem alarming, keep in mind that this disease is far less dangerous than the pandemics and plagues of history. Each of us has the power to lower our risk through smart choices. With collaborative action guided by science, monkeypox can eventually join smallpox as another viral threat overcome by human ingenuity.