At least nine confirmed cases of monkeypox have been reported in the United Kingdom, according to the U.K. Health Security Agency (UKHSA). The agency says that the first known patient had recently traveled to Nigeria, where they believe the virus was contracted, before traveling back to the U.K. While experts may have an explanation for the first known case, the other eight confirmed cases have no connection to this individual and had not previously traveled to a country where monkeypox is endemic.
Chief medical adviser for UKHSA, Dr. Susan Hopkins, said that this is “rare and unusual,” and has prompted the health agency to look into monkeypox transmission within the community.
While cases remain low in the U.K., and experts say the “overall risk to the general public remains low, it is still important to understand the signs, symptoms, and risks of monkeypox. Here’s everything you need to know.
What Is Monkeypox?
Monkeypox is a rare disease that is caused by infection with the monkeypox virus, also known as MPV. Monkeypox is a zoonosis disease, which means it is transmitted from animals to humans. It is similar to smallpox, causing many of the same symptoms, but is much less severe, and is not thought to be nearly as much of a public health risk.
The virus was first detected in 1958 when two outbreaks of a pox-like disease occurred in lab monkeys that had been kept for research, which is where the disease got its name. The first known case of monkeypox in humans was recorded 12 years later in 1970 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) during a period of intensified effort to eliminate smallpox.
Since then, monkeypox has been reported in people in several other central and western African countries: Cameroon, Central African Republic, Cote d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Liberia, Nigeria, Republic of the Congo, and Sierra Leone. To date, the majority of monkeypox cases are in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Cases of monkeypox in people outside of Africa are typically linked to international travel, which is what researchers believe is responsible for at least one active case in the U.K. but can also be caused by imported animals.
While monkeypox is typically transmitted through contact with wild animals, cases in the U.K. have caused researchers to reexamine how the virus may spread between humans.
How Is Monkeypox Transmitted?
Monkeypox typically does not spread easily between people, as it is usually spread through contact with wild animals, typically in areas near rainforests. Minor outbreaks of monkeypox usually occur in West and Central Africa, but transmission is low because it only can happen via direct contact with lesions or respiratory secretions.
The UKHSA has confirmed this, stating that there is a relatively low risk of transmission in the general population. However, even with a low transmission rate, experts are still trying to understand how the virus has spread between individuals with no prior contact with one another, or international travel.
Infectious disease epidemiologist with the UKHSA, Mateo Prochazka, explained why these findings were so profound. In a recent tweet, he wrote, “Close contact between two people (such as during sex) could also facilitate transmission – but this has never been described before.”
In a follow-up tweet, he continued, “What is even more bizarre is finding cases that appear to have acquired the infection via sexual contact. This is a novel route of transmission that will have implications for outbreak response and control.
Even with low transmission rates and few confirmed cases, it’s nonetheless important to understand how you can spot the signs of monkeypox.
Symptoms of Monkeypox
Similar to other pox-like diseases, like smallpox and chickenpox, monkeypox typically causes a rash. This rash usually starts on the face and spreads to other parts of the body including the genitals. The rash will likely change and can transform to look like chickenpox or syphilis before scabbing. These scabs then fall off and can leave behind large scars.
Monkeypox can also cause a host of other symptoms aside from a rash. These include:
- Muscle aches
- Swollen lymph nodes
People can contract the monkeypox virus and have no visible symptoms. These individuals are not considered to be infectious.
How to Keep Yourself Safe from Monkeypox
Currently, there is no known cure for monkeypox. That said, the CDC has said that to control an outbreak in the United States, a combination of the smallpox vaccine, antivirals, and vaccinia immune globulin (VIG), can be used to help mitigate the spread.
Unlike other viral diseases, like COVID-19 which spreads very easily via respiratory droplets, monkeypox is primarily spread through close contact with someone who has been infected with the virus. This can include touching the spots or scabs of someone who has been infected, as well as their clothing, bedding, or other personal items. This is not to say that monkeypox is only spread through contact, however. The virus can be spread through coughing or sneezing, although it is less likely.
The best way to keep yourself safe from monkeypox is to keep a close eye on your body and those around you. If you notice your skin developing a pox-like rash, or if you know someone who may be displaying symptoms of monkeypox, keep a safe distance and seek medical attention immediately.
While rare, serious complications of monkeypox can occur. This can include secondary infections such as sepsis, encephalitis, and infection of the cornea which can lead to vision loss. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), as many as one in 10 persons who contract the disease die, mostly in younger people. No deaths have been reported in the nine active cases in the U.K.
Have You Heard of Monkeypox Before?
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