Monkeypox: What You Need to Know About the Disease

Monkeypox is cause for some concern, but not alarm.
Monkeypox is cause for some concern, but not alarm. / Bill Oxford/iStock via Getty Images

With the world still grappling with the coronavirus, another infectious disease has emerged in recent weeks to raise further concern: monkeypox. The virus, which causes blistering skin lesions, has afflicted at least nine people in seven U.S. states as of late May 2022; there are dozens of cases outside of Africa, where the virus is endemic.

Is it time to add it to the teetering pile of global catastrophes? Experts say no, but it's still a good idea to have some knowledge about monkeypox's presentation, transmission, and risks.

Where does monkeypox come from?

Monkeypox was first identified in 1958 as a zoonotic virus originating in monkeys kept for lab research. The virus became endemic in Central and West Africa, where it continues to be a threat. Periodically, it surfaces outside Africa: In 2003, a monkeypox outbreak affected a few dozen residents in the United States following exposure to infected animals.

How is monkeypox transmitted?

Large respiratory droplets, bodily fluids, animal contact, and skin-to-skin contact are all methods of transmission for monkeypox. (Asymptomatic transmission, where a virus spreads without a person being noticeably ill, is rare.) Because prolonged physical contact can lead to infection, it’s possible to be at increased risk for the virus if your sexual partner has it.

Most—but not all—U.S. cases have involved people who recently returned from international travel.

What are the symptoms of monkeypox?

Symptoms can develop between six and 21 days following exposure. Fever and body aches are common with monkeypox, but the real telltale signs are skin lesions that initially look flat before filling with fluid. Symptoms can last two to four weeks, and most cases resolve on their own.

Is monkeypox fatal?

There are two strains of monkeypox—the Central African strain and the West African strain. The Central African strain is typically more infectious and more severe. None of those recently infected in the United States or abroad has died. In Nigeria, monkeypox typically has a fatality rate of 3.3 percent.

How is monkeypox similar to smallpox?

Monkeypox is related to smallpox, another blistering disease cased by a virus in the genus Orthopoxvirus. Smallpox was eradicated globally by the late 1970s thanks to a vaccination campaign. Smallpox was also far more deadly, proving fatal to roughly three in 10 people.

Is there a monkeypox vaccine?

Because monkeypox and smallpox have some similarities, someone vaccinated for smallpox may have some degree of protection against monkeypox. But smallpox vaccines largely dropped off following that virus’s eradication. Generally, people born after 1972, when the vaccine stopped being routinely administered, haven’t received a smallpox vaccine.

There is a monkeypox-specific vaccine as well as oral treatments, but these medications are not widely available. It’s possible to receive a monkeypox or smallpox vaccine following exposure and before symptoms develop, which would lessen the degree of illness.

Is monkeypox going to be an epidemic?

This is not likely. If monkeypox were to see a noticeable rise in spread, increased testing and vaccinations would likely curb the problem. Though any virus has the ability to mutate and escape current treatments, that is not being observed with monkeypox.

For now, it’s best to take the same common-sense measures to prevent illness: frequent hand-washing, avoiding close contact with symptomatic people, and wearing a mask as community health policies advise.