The number of confirmed cases of monkeypox, a virus related to smallpox that is usually restricted to Africa, is increasing – particularly in Europe and North America, prompting the World Health Organization (WHO) to declare a global health emergency over the outbreak on July 23.
The virus, which is less deadly than smallpox, usually lasts two to four weeks and symptoms can appear five to 21 days after infection.
Although healthcare professionals around the world stress that the risk to the general population is low, it is important to know how monkeypox is spread and what you can do to protect yourself from infection.
How is monkeypox spread?
Typically, monkeypox is known to spread to people who have come into contact with infected animals. It can be a bite, a scratch or the consumption of raw animal meat.
Monkeypox can also be spread from person to person. Although initially thought to be rare, the unusual rapid rise in infections outside of West and Central Africa has raised concerns.
It is usually transmitted between people in three ways: through the inhalation of respiratory droplets; directly touch an infected person; and, less often, through indirect contact – such as through clothing or laundry that has come in contact with fluid from wounds.
Respiratory transmission involves large droplets that do not linger in the air or travel far. As a result, person-to-person spread usually requires close personal contact, such as skin-to-skin contact or kissing.
The virus is not generally considered a sexually transmitted infection (STI) and is not known to be spread through semen during sexual intercourse.
However, the WHO says monkeypox is currently spread primarily through prolonged skin-to-skin contact that occurs during sexual intercourse.
This means that although condoms can protect against most STIs, they are probably not enough to prevent the transmission of monkeypox.
“Close contact sexual transmission is the main mode of spread, but cases are detected during episodes of transmission in the home, and sometimes without any clear exposure history,” said Dr Hans Kluge, regional director of the WHO for Europe, Tuesday 26 July. ).
So far, the majority of cases have been sexually spread with a particular concentration among men who have sex with men. However, anyone can be at risk of catching the virus.
The “temporary recommendations” of the WHO
After declaring the monkeypox outbreak an international public health emergency, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus issued temporary recommendations to reduce the risk of catching the virus.
These included “promoting the reduction of the number of sexual partners, where appropriate” and special measures at “events with on-site sex venues”.
He also called for engagement with organizers of events that could be “conducive to encounters of an intimate sexual nature”, to encourage personal safety and protection, and for organizers to potentially postpone events where protective measures cannot be set up.
The WHO has also called on the world to “act together in solidarity” regarding the distribution of treatments, tests and vaccines.
How to protect yourself from monkeypox?
One of the best ways to protect yourself against monkeypox is to get vaccinated.
Unlike the COVID-19 vaccine, there is currently only one company producing an approved monkeypox vaccine, so supplies are somewhat limited.
The Danish biotechnology company Bavarian Nordic produces the Imvanex vaccine and, on Monday July 25, the European Commission authorized its marketing as protection against the virus. This followed the previous week’s recommendation from the European Medicines Agency (EMA).
Imvanex was previously only approved in the EU to treat smallpox, but the company had already supplied the vaccine to several EU countries during the current monkeypox outbreak for what is known as “outside” use. MA”.
The approval is valid in all member states of the European Union as well as Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway, Bavarian Nordic said in a statement.
Besides getting vaccinated, there are a number of other precautions people can take to reduce the risk of catching monkeypox.
“Consider limiting your sexual partners and interactions at this time. This can be a difficult message, but exercising caution can protect you and your wider community,” Kluge said this week.
According to the UK National Health Service and the US Centers for Disease Control, the best precautions are:
- Wash your hands regularly with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
- Talk to your sexual partners about their sexual health and any symptoms they may have.
- Be aware of monkeypox symptoms if you are sexually active, especially if you have new sexual partners.
- Do not have close contact with people who are sick and may have monkeypox.
- Do not share bedding or towels with people who are sick and may have monkeypox.
- Take a break from sex and intimate contact if you have symptoms of monkeypox until you are seen by a doctor and told you are no longer at risk of transmitting it.
- Use personal protective equipment (PPE) when caring for patients confirmed or infected with monkeypox virus.
- Do not approach wild or stray animals, including dead animals, as well as animals that appear sick.
- Do not eat or touch the meat of wild animals.
What should you do if you catch monkeypox?
If you think you have monkeypox, the advice is to get tested at a health facility or sexual health clinic, where a PCR test can be done.
Early symptoms of monkeypox may consist of headache, muscle aches, swelling, back pain, and fever.
Within one to five days after infection, lesions and rashes usually occur all over the body – on the hands, face, feet, eyes, mouth, and genitals. These eventually turn into raised bumps that blister, some also fill with white fluid before breaking apart and forming scabs. This liquid can be infectious.
If you have these symptoms or think you may have contracted the virus, you should isolate yourself from physical contact with others and seek immediate medical attention.
If you have contracted the virus, you will need to self-isolate until you recover.
People who get monkeypox usually recover in two to four weeks. Symptoms can be mistaken for other illnesses – such as herpes, syphilis or chickenpox – so it’s important to confirm with a medical professional as soon as possible.