On Saturday, 23 July the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the monkeypox outbreak a global health emergency after its second meeting on the disease’s spread. WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced, “We have an outbreak that has spread around the world rapidly, through new modes of transmission, about which we understand too little, and which meets the criteria in the International Health Regulations. For all of these reasons, I have decided that the global monkeypox outbreak represents a public health emergency of international concern.”
WHO has determined that the risk of monkeypox is moderate globally, except in Europe where they assess the risk as high. The total global cases since 6 May has reached over 16,000 in 64 countries.
What is monkeypox?
The monkeypox virus is in the same family as variola virus, the virus that causes smallpox. Monkeypox symptoms are similar to smallpox but far less severe and rarely lead to fatality.
Symptoms of monkeypox can include:
- Muscle aches and backache
- Swollen lymph nodes
- A rash that can look like pimples or blisters that appear on the face, inside the mouth, and on other parts of the body, like the hands, feet, chest, genitals, or anus.
Monkeypox was first discovered in 1958 when two outbreaks of a pox-like disease festered among a research colony of apes. And despite the name, the exact source of the disease remains unknown. The first human case of monkeypox was recorded in 1970. The Center for Disease Control reports: “Prior to the 2022 outbreak, monkeypox had been reported in people in several central and western African countries. Previously, almost all monkeypox cases in people outside of Africa were linked to international travel to countries where the disease commonly occurs or through imported animals.”
On 7 May 2022 the first case of monkeypox seen in a non-endemic country was reported. A patient in the United Kingdom was treated for the disease after returning from travel in Nigeria, an endemic country. The next week, the UK reported two additional cases of the disease unrelated to the first. By the third week of May, Portugal reported 14 confirmed cases with 20 additional suspected cases. Throughout the early days of the summer, the virus quickly spread across Europe and into Asia, South America, and the United States.
According to the CDC website, the vast majority of cases reside in the United States and across Europe, with Spain, Germany, and the UK reporting the highest number of patients in the region.
- Spain: 3,125 cases
- Germany: 2,268 cases
- UK: 2,208 cases
- United States: 2,890 cases
How does monkeypox spread?
Monkeypox can be transmitted from animal to human as well as human to human. The virus spreads through physical contact of those with the disease as well as through bedding or towels used by monkeypox patients. Direct contact with the rash or rash secretion through objects and surfaces are believed to be common ways the disease is spreading.
Monkeypox can also be transmitted through respiratory fluids like droplets when coughing or sneezing, similar to Covid-19. The CDC has recommended the use of facemasks once again to prevent the spread of the virus.
Cases have most commonly but not exclusively been identified in gay and bisexual men seeking primary care at sexual health clinics. However, the WHO has issued the following statement: “Stigmatising people because of a disease is never ok. Anyone can get or pass on monkeypox, regardless of their sexuality.”
The modes of protecting yourself and others from the disease are not unfamiliar in a post-pandemic world:
- Isolate if you have symptoms such as a full-like illness or a new rash consisting of pimples or blisters
- Avoid skin-to-skin contact, including sexual contact with anyone who has symptoms
- Clean hands, objects, and surfaces that have been touched regularly
- Wear a mask if you are in close contact with someone with symptoms
It’s also worth noting that if you’ve been vaccinated against smallpox, this is considered to be effective against monkeypox due to the similarities with the viruses.
Time for a change of name?
Stigma surrounding the disease origins and those who contract the disease has been rampant and many calls have been made to change the name of the virus. The WHO expressed their intentions to rename the disease due to the stigmatisation against the African countries where the disease is enigmatic.
Conspiracy theorist are utilising Covid copy-and-paste theories to link the two health emergencies. Many social media accounts claim the Covid pandemic and monkeypox were planned by global leaders to gain profit from vaccine sales. Another theory popularised by US Congressional member Marjorie Taylor Greene stated that Bill Gates has a hand in the monkeypox outbreak, a target she also claimed was responsible for the pandemic.
As social media spirals down yet another black hole, including arguments that zoos are contaminated, the faster the CDC and WHO can de-stigmatise monkeypox and spread more insights into the disease, the faster we can avoid a health emergency repeat like Covid-19 deniers.