Monkeypox is a rare disease similar to smallpox. It is usually not lethal, though it can be severe in some cases. Now that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared the virus as a public health emergency in response to the current outbreak, many are asking: Is monkeypox really that dangerous?
There is no specific cure for monkeypox yet, but antiviral vaccines can help treat it. In most cases, the virus will go away on its own after a few weeks. However, some people may develop serious complications that may be fatal. Here’s what you should know about how dangerous monkeypox is – and what you can do about it.
The monkeypox outbreak
Several outbreaks have been reported in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Europe, and Canada since May 2022. The recent outbreak of monkeypox has raised concerns around the world.
The World Health Organization has declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, a designation meant to move the global community to take coordinated measures to control this disease and protect communities.
Genetic analysis determined that the variant of the virus which is causing the outbreaks belongs to a branch of the monkeypox evolutionary tree that originated in West Africa but has no clear link to any countries where the virus is endemic.
Health experts suspect that the virus might have circulated undetected in a number of countries outside Africa for several months, if not longer.
Genetic analysis also suggests that the West African monkeypox virus acquired its ability to spread between humans as early as 2017 – although the results are still preliminary and have not yet been peer reviewed. There have been a number of mutations since then that have made it better able to infect and pass between humans – including one that may reduce some of our immune responses.
Monkeypox is not as readily transmissible as Coronavirus. Instead, it relies on close physical contact – usually prolonged – between people or animals.
To protect yourself against monkeypox, you should first learn the facts, understand how it spreads, what its symptoms may look like, the key prevention steps you should take if exposed or infected, and where you can find a monkeypox test near you.
Is monkeypox serious or fatal?
Monkeypox is a rare but serious disease that can be fatal in about 1 out of every 100 cases. The global monkeypox outbreak has caused some deaths, but the death rate is lower than expected based on historical data.
More than 57,000 people have been confirmed to have had monkeypox infections, and 22 have died, representing about 0.04% of all cases. It’s much lower than the 1–3% that have been reported during outbreaks caused by a similar viral strain in West Africa in the past few decades.
Still, even though monkeypox has a low mortality rate, patients have reported how painful and debilitating it can be. Pain arises from fluid-filled lesions caused by the disease. Some people have been hospitalized for life-threatening complications, such as difficulty breathing or encephalitis (swelling of the brain), but it has been more common for people to be hospitalized for pain management.
There have been monkeypox deaths in at least ten countries so far during the global outbreak, including Brazil, India, Nigeria, and Spain. Some fatalities – including one in the United States and one in Mexico – were severely immunocompromised and had serious illnesses other than monkeypox. While two people in Spain developed encephalitis and had no other known risk factors.
It is unknown whether encephalitis from monkeypox may occur as a result of the virus infecting brain tissues or because of an excessive immune response that causes brain swelling.
Monkeypox can also result in secondary skin infections, pneumonia, confusion, and eye problems. Other complications include proctitis (sores and swelling inside the rectum causing pain), as well as pain or difficulty urinating.
Who is at risk of catching monkeypox?
Anyone who comes into physical contact with someone with symptoms or an infected animal, is at increased risk of infection no matter their age, gender, sex assigned at birth, sexual orientation or race.
The virus can spread through direct contact with an infected person through fluid from a skin lesion. It can also spread by touching objects, fabrics, and surfaces used by someone with the virus.
In most cases, the symptoms of monkeypox go away on their own within a few weeks. However, in some people, an infection can lead to medical complications and even death.
The most at risk from monkeypox are those who live with or have close contact (including sexual contact) with someone who has the virus.
Health workers, by the very nature of their job, should follow infection prevention and control measures to protect themselves while caring for patients with monkeypox.
Newborn infants, young children, people with underlying immune deficiencies, and individuals with a history of atopic dermatitis or eczema may be at higher risk of more serious symptoms, and in rare cases, death from monkeypox.
Pregnancy can also increase the risk of adverse events such as miscarriage or stillbirth. A pregnant woman can also spread the virus to their fetus through the placenta.
What can I do to protect myself and others from monkeypox?
You can reduce the risk of catching monkeypox from other people by limiting close contact with people who have suspected or confirmed monkeypox. People who live with infected people should encourage them to isolate themselves, and, if possible, cover any skin breaks with clothing.
Keep yourself informed about monkeypox in your community, and talk openly with those you are in close contact with (especially sexually) about any symptoms you or they may experience.
Wear a face mask when in close proximity to an infected person, especially if they are coughing or have mouth sores, or when touching their clothing or bedding. Make sure to wear disposable gloves when in contact with skin.
If you come into contact with an infected person, with their clothing (including sheets and towels), or with other items or surfaces (such as utensils or dishes) that may have come into contact with rashes or respiratory secretions, wash your hands frequently with soap and water or use alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
If you encounter any contaminated surfaces, disinfect them immediately, dispose of contaminated waste (such as dressings), and wash the infected person’s clothing, towels, sheets, and eating utensils with warm water and detergent.
Although for most people the monkeypox virus is not a serious threat, monkeypox can be fatal in some cases. It is important to be aware of the risks associated with the virus to take precautions and to avoid exposure.