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Monkeypox outbreak: everything you need to know

It’s not COVID-19 all over again

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Monkeypox Vaccination Site Opens In West Hollywood, CA
Vaccines are available to high-risk groups.
Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

In May, public health officials started to detect cases of monkeypox all over the world, including in places where the disease doesn’t usually spread. In addition to spreading in Central and West Africa, where the disease has historically popped up, outbreaks spread in Europe, the United States, South America, and other parts of the planet.

The World Health Organization declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern over the spread of the disease worldwide, and the Biden administration declared a public health emergency for the United States monkeypox outbreak on Thursday, two months after cases of the disease started appearing in the country. 

Here’s what you need to know about monkeypox. 

What is monkeypox?

Monkeypox is a disease caused by the monkeypox virus. It’s a similar virus to the one that causes smallpox. The first human case was identified in 1970, and since then, it’s primarily caused outbreaks in a handful of countries in Africa. 

Should we blame monkeys for monkeypox? 

Leave the monkeys alone. Monkeypox got its name because it was first identified in a research monkey back in 1958. But this virus likes hanging out with plenty of small furry critters, especially rodents. One of the last outbreaks in the US happened in 2003 when some domesticated prairie dogs were sharing space with infected mammals from West Africa. 

Infected animals can spread monkeypox to people, but there haven’t yet been any confirmed cases of people spreading it to animals, according to the CDC. That being said, they do warn that it’s possible for an infected person to spread monkeypox to an animal via “petting, cuddling, hugging, kissing, licking, sharing sleeping areas, and sharing food.” 

TL:DR: do not lick your chinchilla while you have monkeypox. 

Where is monkeypox spreading?

Cases of monkeypox are appearing all over the world. Right now, cases are primarily clustered among men who have sex with other men, but anyone can catch the virus. 

What are the symptoms of monkeypox? 

The most telltale signs of monkeypox are blister- and pimple-like lesions on the body. In the past, cases of monkeypox usually included lesions over the whole body. During this outbreak, though, many patients just have a few blisters on one part of the body, like the genital area. Patients also have fevers, swollen lymph nodes, headaches, and other flu-like symptoms. 

The illness usually isn’t fatal, but it can be very painful. It typically lasts two to four weeks. 

I’m getting flashbacks — is this COVID-19 all over again?

No, this isn’t COVID-19 all over again. This isn’t a new virus. Scientists have known about monkeypox for decades, even if it hasn’t popped up in this many countries before. There are already treatments and vaccines that work against it. Even if most people in the US hadn’t heard of monkeypox before, we’re not starting from scratch the way we did with the coronavirus.

Is this monkeypox outbreak a pandemic? 

Nope. Monkeypox, while it is spreading around the world, is still considered to be an outbreak. There’s not really any official criteria for a pandemic, but the World Health Organization ultimately makes the call as to whether a disease outbreak qualifies, and that hasn’t happened yet. The last pandemic to be declared was COVID-19 in March 2020, which was approximately yesterday or eight decades ago, depending on how twisted your perception of time has gotten over the past two years.

Monkeypox does now have the distinction of being a public health emergency, both in the US and the world. Emergency declarations help free up resources for countries and organizations to take more public health measures during an outbreak.  

Monkeypox vaccine, August 2022, Star Tribune photo
Photo by David Joles/Star Tribune via Getty Images

How can I get tested for monkeypox? 

Right now, monkeypox testing is still limited in the United States. People can get tested by doctors or urgent care providers. Tests require swabbing a monkeypox lesion and sending it off to a lab for testing. Some people with symptoms and rashes, though, say they’re still having trouble accessing tests — many doctors still aren’t familiar with the disease. 

Are there home tests?

There aren’t home tests for monkeypox. Most testing still requires that healthcare providers swab a monkeypox lesion, and there’s no way for someone to do that on their own at this point. Some groups are working to develop tests that use saliva. 

Should I grab a monkeypox vaccine? 

The good news is that there’s already one FDA-approved vaccine to prevent monkeypox: Jynneos. The bad news is that it’s currently in short supply in the United States. In August, the government moved to stretch supplies by letting providers administer a lower dose of the vaccine.  

State and local health departments are making it available to people with known exposure to monkeypox because getting vaccinated after exposure can keep the virus from multiplying. Public health officials are also offering the vaccine to the groups where the virus is primarily spreading: men who have sex with men, and people who have had multiple recent sexual partners in areas where the disease is spreading. 

Monkeypox vaccines are being distributed by the federal government to local and state health departments. If you want to know more about whether or not you’re eligible, the CDC advises you to check with your healthcare provider, or health department. 

How is monkeypox transmitted? 

Monkeypox primarily spreads through person-to-person contact — when someone has close physical contact with someone who is infected with the virus. Right now, it seems to be spreading mostly through sexual contact, which is one reason why we’re seeing infections clustered in sexual networks. It could be possible to catch monkeypox by touching objects or fabrics (like sheets) that were in contact with monkeypox lesions. But that’s probably not a huge method of transmission, and basic hygiene measures (wiping surfaces, washing hands) should cut down on the risk. 

The monkeypox virus might be able to spread when infected people exhale and others close by breathe in that exhalation, but it’s not nearly as contagious through that pathway as COVID-19. We’re not seeing cases where people catch the virus just by being in the same room briefly as someone with monkeypox — which we do with COVID-19. 

U.S.-NEW YORK-MONKEYPOX-EMERGENCY
A monkeypox vaccination site in Brooklyn, New York.
Photo by Michael Nagle/Xinhua via Getty Images

Why is monkeypox spreading so quickly all of a sudden? 

Researchers are still trying to figure out why monkeypox started spreading outside of the places where it’s usually found. It could be because of new features of the virus that let it travel undetected, but it’s very much an open question. 

Do I need to worry about getting monkeypox on the subway?

Monkeypox spreads primarily through close physical contact, so the subway shouldn’t be a major risk — just wear a mask (masks are still required on the NYC subway) and wash your hands.

Should I change my laundry or shopping habits because of monkeypox? 

It’s possible to get monkeypox by touching fabric that has brushed up against monkeypox lesions. That’s not a super common way the disease spreads, though. If you’re in the same home as or helping out with someone who you know has monkeypox, you should probably take additional care handling their dirty clothing or bedding, but it’s not a major risk for people in their daily lives. 

People who handle lots of people’s laundry every day, like dry cleaners, might want to take some extra precautions. The New York City Health Department recommends commercial launderers wear gloves and a mask while handling dirty clothes. Clean clothes, though, are fine, as standard detergents would have removed any virus. 

And contrary to popular TikToks, trying on clothes while shopping is probably not a high risk. Hannah Docter-Loeb at Slate spoke to experts who said that clothes shopping was “highly unlikely” to be a source of monkeypox infection. That’s because even though the virus might be detectable on surfaces for a while, it probably becomes non-viable quickly, meaning it can’t infect people. Those experts also said there hadn’t been any reported cases of transmission via clothing shopping. 

You’re not likely to pick up the disease by touching items in a store or out in your daily life. Brushing up against someone out in public or sitting on a bus seat after someone else stood up isn’t going to transmit the virus. Just wash your hands the same way you normally do. 

Are pools safe from monkeypox? It’s so hot, please say yes. 

You might want to stick to using your own towel and wash your hands after using public locker rooms. But monkeypox isn’t waterborne, so swimming pools should be just fine. Any virus that does make it into the water will be diluted, and the chlorine offers an additional layer of protection, Stuart Burstin, the interim national director of infectious diseases for the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, told the LA Times.

Does monkeypox make it okay to film someone with a skin condition in public? 

What? No. This is abhorrent. Don’t do this

Where can I get the latest information about monkeypox?

The CDC monkeypox page is here. That’s where you can find updated case counts, more information about signs and symptoms, and information about prevention and treatment.

This post was originally published on August 5.  It has been updated with new information as it becomes available.

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