Monkeypox Isn’t Nearly As Dangerous or Contagious as Covid-19

After the Covid-19 pandemic, Americans are understandably concerned about a monkeypox outbreak. But the disease is far less contagious than the coronavirus.

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Not as bad as you might think. Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

With the U.S still reeling from two years of battling Covid-19, it’s understandable that Americans might be worried about an outbreak of another nasty virus, this one called monkeypox.

Thus far there is one confirmed case of monkeypox in the U.S. and four others that preliminary testing suggests will also turn out to be monkeypox, Jennifer McQuiston, an official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said May 23 in a conference call for reporters hosted by the CDC.

The virus is most common in western Africa so outbreaks in Europe and North America are unusual. Currently between the U.S. and Europe there are more than 120 confirmed and suspected cases. 

A previous multistate outbreak in 2003 resulted when people were bitten by pet prairie dogs that had been infected when they were housed near animals imported from Ghana. It was the first time human monkeypox was reported outside of Africa.

The virus causes people to feel very sick, but most recover from it, albeit with ugly scars in some cases, said William Schafner, a professor of infectious disease at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Nevertheless, there have been deaths in Africa among people with underlying immune system issues and also in children, Shafner said. Depending on the strain of the disease, mortality rates can be as high as 10%. 

There is a vaccine that federal officials are recommending for people who are at risk for severe disease and have come in contact with an infected person. The vaccine may also be offered to healthcare workers who take care of patients infected with monkeypox, McQuiston said. Antiviral drugs may help those who are at risk of severe disease.

Monkeypox is spread through skin-to-skin contact

The good news is monkeypox virus is less dangerous than SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, and pretty hard to catch, Schafner said.  You’re very unlikely to become infected via inhaled virus particles, unless you’re positioned very close to someone for an extended period of time, he said.

The monkeypox virus is most often spread via prolonged skin-to-skin contact, Schafner said. For example, he said, “if it’s romantic sexual contact where a lot of your skin is touching a lot of the other person’s skin, you may have transmission.

“Or if you’re kissing for an extended period of time and exchanging respiratory secretions, it can also spread that way, In that way it’s not like covid-19. It requires pretty close substantial contact.”

So tools, like masking, used to prevent Covid infections won’t work against monkeypox, Schafner said. People just need to be aware of the symptoms and seek medical care if they think they might be infected.

The initial symptom is often a fever which can reach as high as 103 degrees Fahrenheit, Schafner said. “Then you can get headaches, muscle aches and pain,” he added. “Next come swollen glands all around the body and then after a day or two a rash comes out.”

“At first there are just red blotches and then these quickly turn into blisters,” Schafner said. “They’re different from what you see with chickenpox, which are rather thin. These are rather thick and rubbery and they’re all in the same phase.”

To protect others, you should self-isolate once you think you have been infected, Schafner said.

Scientists suspect that the current outbreaks were sparked when men spread the virus via sexual transmission during two raves in Europe.  

For those who remember all the conflicting information given out by government entities at the beginning of the pandemic, this is not that.

 “This is not Covid,” McQuiston said. “Early in Covid there was not a lot of information on the virus. We do know a lot about monkeypox virus through decades of studying it.”

In general, “this isn’t something the average person needs to worry about,” said Amish Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “We’ve had these outbreaks time and again. We’ve been able to halt all of them.”

There will likely be more cases in the coming weeks, said Deborah H. Fuller, a professor in the department of microbiology at the University of Washington. Because the virus has such a long incubation period—usually about five to 10 days, but sometimes as long as three weeks—the cases we’re seeing now are in people who probably were exposed one to two weeks ago, Fuller added.

Along with direct, prolonged skin to skin contact, and the exchange of bodily fluids, bedding and clothing that have come into contact with an active lesion can spread the virus, Fuller said. 

Monkeypox Isn’t Nearly As Dangerous or Contagious as Covid-19