The World Health Organization recently declared monkeypox outbreak as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). This declaration should spur international collaborations and actions to respond to this current global outbreak of monkeypox, which has more than 25,000 cases across 83 countries (76 did not historically report monkeypox), with several deaths reported.
Monkeypox is usually a self-limiting disease, with symptoms lasting from 2 to 4 weeks. Monkeypox virus is transmitted from one person to another by close contact with rashes, body fluids, respiratory droplets and contaminated materials such as bedding. Symptoms can include fever, headache, muscle and backache, swollen lymph nodes, chills, tiredness, sore throat, cough, stuffy nose, and rashes. The rashes resemble pimples and appear on the face, inside the mouth, and on other parts of the body, like the hands, feet, chest, genitals. Rashes may be located on or near the penis, testicles, labia, vagina and anus. Monkeypox symptoms mimic other infectious diseases such as malaria. This is a major reason there should be a high index of suspicion for monkeypox. When in doubt, please contact your healthcare provider.
If you are concerned about this outbreak or want to learn more, here are 5 things you should know about monkeypox and the global response to it.
First, monkeypox is not an African disease. Although the virus infection is endemic in west and central Africa, it can occur anywhere without linkages to Africa. In this current global monkeypox emergency, several countries report monkeypox cases that have no genetic linkages to Africa.
Second, monkeypox blisters may look unsightly but managing the infection is not complicated. It is a self-limiting infection. This means that monkeypox can resolve on its own with palliative care or even without treatment. However, people infected must ensure they watch out for severe symptoms and go to the hospital when they feel symptoms are getting worse.
Third, this current monkeypox outbreak appears to be more prevalent among men who have sex with men. Indeed, 98% of monkeypox cases are reported among gay or bisexual men. Therefore, there is fear of sufferers being stigmatized because of their sexuality. We must be careful not to stigmatize people. However, public health messaging should also include safe sex practices, including abstinence when someone’s partner has monkeypox.
Fourth, prevention is better than cure. Monkeypox is a zoonosis — it means an infection that can be spread from animals to humans. We must avoid contact with animals that carry the infection. Although named monkeypox, it is not only transmitted by monkeys. It is known to be transmitted by some mammals including monkeys, anteaters, hedgehogs, prairie dogs, squirrels, and shrews. In parts of Africa where the killing and eating of bushmeat are common, there must be stricter regulations to protect endangered animals. Other ways of prevention include limiting contact with those already infected, washing of hands with soap and water, and being vaccinated with the monkeypox vaccine.
Lastly, the fast global spread of this monkeypox outbreak should be a wake-up call for global solidarity in preventing, detecting and responding to infectious diseases. Countries in Africa had reported monkeypox prior to this 2022 global outbreak. However, richer western nations did not prioritize production of vaccines, nor did they work to make it a global health priority. Vaccine nationalism, as witnessed with COVID-19, is being played out again. Several global health leaders have condemned this nationalistic approach to responding to monkeypox. For instance, Dr. Tom Frieden — President of Resolve to Save Lives and former Director of the U.S. Centres for Disease Control tweeted: Monkeypox has been spreading for years in Africa without the world joining in solidarity to support African scientists to learn more and stop it. In all likelihood, this was a preventable outbreak. Now, the world must respond. We must do better.
The Lancet published an editorial highlighting this inequity. Like Ebola and Zika, monkeypox only commands global attention when it hits high-income countries with predominantly white populations, they wrote.
There is no need to be afraid of monkeypox. Having the right information about the disease enables one to make the right decisions to prevent infection and also seek care when infected.