Because monkeypox is closely related to smallpox, the smallpox vaccine can provide protection against infection from both viruses. Since the latter was officially eradicated, however, routine smallpox vaccinations for the US general population were stopped in 1972. Because of this, monkeypox has been appearing increasingly in unvaccinated people.
The virus can be transmitted through contact with an infected person or animal, or contaminated surfaces. Typically it enters the body through broken skin, inhalation or the mucous membranes in the eyes, nose or mouth. Researchers believe human-to-human transmission is mostly through inhalation of large respiratory droplets rather than direct contact with bodily fluids or indirect contact through clothes. Human-to-human transmission rates for monkeypox have been limited.
Health officials are worried the virus may now be spreading undetected through community transmission, possibly through a new mechanism or route. Where and how infections are occurring are still under investigation.
Signs and symptoms
After the virus enters the body it starts to replicate and spread via the bloodstream. Symptoms usually don’t appear until one to two weeks after infection.
Monkeypox produces smallpox-like skin lesions, but symptoms are usually milder than those of that virus. Flu-like symptoms are common initially, ranging from fever and headache to shortness of breath. One to 10 days later, a rash can appear on the extremities, head or torso that eventually turns into blisters filled with pus. Overall, symptoms usually last for two to four weeks, while skin lesions usually scab over in 14 to 21 days.
While monkeypox is rare and usually non-fatal, one version of the disease kills about 10% of infected people. The form of the virus now circulating is thought to be milder, with a fatality rate of less than 1%.
Vaccines and treatments
Treatment for monkeypox is primarily focused on relieving symptoms. According to the CDC, no treatments are available to cure infection.
Evidence suggests the smallpox vaccine can help prevent monkeypox infections and decrease the severity of symptoms.
Vaccination after exposure to the virus may also help decrease chances of severe illness. The CDC recommends smallpox vaccination only in people who have been or are likely to be exposed to monkeypox. Immunocompromised people are at high risk.
Rodney E Rohde is regents’ professor of clinical laboratory science, Texas State University. He has worked in public health and medical laboratories for more than three decades, especially in the realm of diseases with animal origins.
This article was first published by The Conversation.