COVID-19 testing requirements for international travel have lifted, and people across the globe are preparing to travel again. But the World Health Organization (WHO) warns that a monkeypox outbreak could become a “real risk” worldwide. Multiple cases have been reported in several countries, many of which don’t usually see monkeypox, including the U.S.
Monkeypox is a disease caused by the monkeypox virus, which is in the same family of viruses as the one that causes smallpox. It is rare, with most cases seen in Central and West African countries, primarily the Democratic Republic of Congo. However, many recent cases have been linked to international travel in non-African countries.
“We have only seen a few possible cases of monkeypox in San Diego,” says Dr. Abisola Olulade, a family medicine doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group. “More are expected, though, and unfortunately, it can be dangerous for people with weakened immune systems, including young children and people who are pregnant or breastfeeding.”
How is monkeypox spread?
Monkeypox is usually spread via direct person-to-person contact through broken skin; the respiratory tract; or the mucous membranes in the eyes, nose and mouth. This can occur during sexual activity, kissing, cuddling or touching parts of the body of a person with monkeypox. Handling clothing or linens that have been worn or used by someone with monkeypox can also lead to infection.
Additionally, the monkeypox virus can be shared from an infected pregnant person to their fetus. And transmission is possible from infected animals to people through a bite or scratch, by handling wild game, or by using products made from infected animals.
What are the symptoms of monkeypox?
While monkeypox normally causes mild illness and is rarely fatal, it can trigger painful symptoms. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), symptoms of monkeypox include:
- Muscle aches and backache
- Swollen lymph nodes
The rash resembles pimples, blisters or sores, and can appear on the face, inside the mouth or on other parts of the body, including the hands, feet, chest, genitals and anus. Some people notice a rash one to three days after experiencing a fever, with other symptoms following. Others may only have a rash, which can take several weeks to heal and can lead to scarring.
Is there a treatment for monkeypox?
The County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency advises people who might have monkeypox to contact their doctor immediately. Although most people with monkeypox experience mild illness that will resolve on its own, others may be at high risk of disease and require treatment. This will likely include antiviral medications used to treat people with smallpox.
Those at greatest risk for severe illness or death include people who:
- Have compromised immune systems
- Are younger than age 8
- Are pregnant or breastfeeding
- Have a history of skin conditions, such as eczema, burns, impetigo, herpes or severe acne
- Have one or more complications, including bacterial skin infection, gastroenteritis, pneumonia or other conditions
- Have monkeypox rash in the eyes, mouth or other areas of the body where infection might create a greater threat to health, including the genitals and anus
Regardless of the severity of the infection, it is important to cover the rash with clothing, wear a face mask around others and avoid all close contact. Monkeypox is highly contagious and can spread until all sores have scabbed over, the scabs have fallen off, and a new layer of skin has formed over the areas of rash — a process that can take up to four weeks.
“The risk of monkeypox within our population is currently low, but if it continues to spread, it can become a more serious public health issue,” Dr. Olulade says. “It is vital that all cases are reported and monitored. If you have traveled recently and believe you may have been exposed to monkeypox or have symptoms of monkeypox — even just a rash — seek urgent medical care immediately.”