How worried should we be about Monkeypox?

It’s always important that we stay up-to-date with the latest developments in relation to our health.

One of the things that is currently on our radar is an unusual outbreak of Monkeypox.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) is describing the outbreak as “significant and concerning” but at this stage are still assessing the outbreak as “moderate”.

The latest update from the WHO stated: “The public health risk could become high if this virus exploits the opportunity to establish itself as a human pathogen and spreads to groups at higher risk of severe disease such as young children and immunosuppressed persons.”

So far, about 300 cases have been confirmed but this is an international outbreak – cases from this cluster have been identified in at least 23 countries. This is on top of five countries in Africa where the virus is considered endemic.

Cases have been detected in Belgium.

Monkeypox is not an STI but what’s interesting is that transmission seems to be happening during sexual contact, and the cases identified so far seem to be mainly in men who have sex with men.

Smallpox vaccinations can be used to protect vulnerable people and limit the transmission of the virus.

As yet, we don’t have any definitive insights as to why Monkeypox has suddenly emerged and spreading via community transmission. Initial research indicates that the current strain of the virus has been present in the UK for a number of years.

“This may be a virus that’s been circulating undetected for quite a while…” said Professor Marc Van Ranst, a virologist at the University of Leuven in Belgium. “They all have a common ancestor and that common ancestor probably dates back to 2019, though it’s too early to date with any kind of accuracy. We know that chronic infection is not a plausible scenario, and that means there has been a chain of transmission events that apparently went unnoticed.”

One of the reasons that we’re seeing infections being identified in gay men is that gay men are generally more engaged with sexual health services, so regular screening may have helped identify the virus that had been circulating at low-levels for a number of years.

People who have tested positive for the virus and their close contacts are being told to isolate at home for 21 days.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has issued guidance advising anyone with the virus to abstain from sex while they have symptoms. The guidance also suggests using condoms for eight weeks after an infection as a precaution.

The guidance says that while there is currently no available evidence that monkeypox can be spread in sexual fluids, people confirmed to have the virus are advised to use condoms for eight weeks after infection as a precaution.

What is Monkeypox?

The name “monkeypox” comes from the first documented cases of the illness, in 1958, when two outbreaks occurred in colonies of monkeys kept for research.

But monkeys aren’t major carriers. Instead, the virus is generally spread by squirrels, pouched rats, dormice or another rodent.

How do you catch Monkeypox?

Primarily, from an animal bite, scratch or contact with the animal’s bodily fluid. Then the virus can spread to other people through coughing and sneezing or contact with pus from the lesions.

The lesions from monkeypox are similar to those from a smallpox infection.

It’s previously been thought that transmission of Monkeypox between people was a very low risk.

But, now it is transmitting between people, which is something that health experts are keeping a close eye on.

Experts are speculating that the end of vaccination programs against Smallpox has left us vulnerable to a Monkeypox outbreak.

How dangerous is Monkeypox?

Monkeypox can be a nasty illness – it causes fever, body aches, enlarged lymph nodes and, eventually, painful, fluid-filled blisters on the face, hands and feet. One version of monkeypox is quite deadly and kills up to 10% of people infected. The version currently being detected from this cluster is milder. Its fatality rate is less than 1%. A case generally resolves in two to four weeks.

What should I do if I think I might have been exposed to Monkeypox?

If you notice any unusual rashes or lesions, and you think you might have been exposed to the virus through sexual contact, then contact your local sexual health service for advice.