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As monkeypox spreads, know the signs, symptoms

Perhaps you have heard about the global outbreak of monkeypox, which started in the spring?

Earlier this month, the United States declared this outbreak a public health emergency. To date, the monkeypox virus has resulted in more than 16,600 laboratory-confirmed cases in the U.S., with tens of thousands of cases reported worldwide. To be clear, the risk of monkeypox in the general population remains low at this time, but it is important that we maintain awareness about this latest public health threat.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, monkeypox is a rare disease caused by infection with the monkeypox virus. Monkeypox virus is part of the same family of viruses as variola virus, the virus that causes smallpox. Monkeypox symptoms are similar to smallpox symptoms, but milder, and monkeypox is rarely fatal. It is not related to chickenpox.

Monkeypox was discovered in 1958 when two outbreaks of a pox-like disease occurred in colonies of monkeys kept for research. Despite being named “monkeypox,” the source of the disease remains unknown. However, African rodents and nonhuman primates (like monkeys) might harbor the virus and infect people.

The first human case of monkeypox was recorded in 1970. Before the 2022 outbreak, monkeypox had been reported in people in several central and western African countries. Previously, almost all monkeypox cases in people outside Africa were linked to international travel to countries where the disease commonly occurs or through imported animals.

People with monkeypox get a rash that may be located on or near the genitals or anus and could be on other areas such as the hands, feet, chest, face or mouth. Other symptoms of monkeypox can include fever, chills, swollen lymph nodes, exhaustion, muscle aches and backache, headache and respiratory symptoms (e.g. sore throat, nasal congestion or cough).

Monkeypox symptoms usually start within three weeks of exposure to the virus. If someone has flu-like symptoms, they will usually develop a rash one to four days later. Monkeypox can be spread from the time symptoms start until the rash has healed, all scabs have fallen off and a fresh layer of skin has formed. The illness typically lasts two to four weeks.

Monkeypox can spread to anyone through close, personal, often skin-to-skin contact, including:

  • Direct contact with monkeypox rash, scabs or body fluids from a person with monkeypox.
  • Touching objects, fabrics (clothing, bedding or towels) and surfaces that have been used by someone with monkeypox.
  • Contact with respiratory secretions.
  • Intimate contact.

Testing and treatment are available for people with suspected or confirmed monkeypox infection and their close contacts and are recommended to reduce the spread of illness. People with possible monkeypox exposure or symptoms of monkeypox infection, including rash, should seek medical advice and testing.

For more information about monkeypox, visit the CDC website at https://www.cdc.gov/poxvirus/monkeypox/index.html.

Dr. Matthew A. Clark, a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics, works for the Indian Health Service.