The Biden administration has declared the monkeypox outbreak in the US to be a public health emergency.
“We’re prepared to take our response to the next level in addressing this virus, and we urge every American to take this virus seriously and to take responsibility to help us tackle this virus,” US Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said.
Monkeypox is a poxvirus, related to smallpox and cowpox. It generally causes pimple- or blister-like lesions and flu-like symptoms such as fever, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The lesions typically concentrate on the arms and legs, but in this outbreak, they’re showing up more frequently on the genital and perianal area.
The rash is “showing up in different parts of the body than we typically expect to see it,” Dr. John Brooks, the CDC’s chief medical officer of HIV prevention, said in late May.
He and other experts have been emphasizing that fact “to remind people that people may come in for an evaluation of what they think is an STD, but we’d like the provider to think ‘Could it be monkeypox as well?’ if the circumstances fit the story,” he said.
How is monkeypox spread?
Monkeypox spreads through close contact, according to the CDC. That includes direct physical contact with lesions as well as “respiratory secretions” shared through face-to-face interaction and touching objects that have been contaminated by monkeypox lesions or fluids. The virus may also pass to a fetus through the placenta.
Many of the cases in the outbreak appear to be connected to sexual contact, often during sex. The CDC says research is ongoing on whether monkeypox can spread through semen or vaginal fluids, or whether the virus can spread asymptomatically.
“Monkeypox is not a sexually transmitted infection in the typical sense, but it can be transmitted during sexual and intimate contact, as well as with personal contact and shared bedding and clothing,” Brooks said.
The CDC says it’s not clear whether monkeypox can spread through semen or vaginal fluids, but the virus can’t spread asymptomatically.
Who is at risk of monkeypox?
Anyone who has had contact with someone with a monkeypox-like rash, or who has had contact with someone who has a probable or confirmed case of monkeypox, is at high risk for infection.
However, a large number of cases in this outbreak have been in men who have sex with men, including gay and bisexual men, and public health officials are focusing their prevention efforts in this group. The virus is not unique to this community, but the nature of its close-contact spread has led to a disproportionate impact.
According to the CDC, those at higher risk during this outbreak include people who “had skin-to-skin contact with someone in a social network experiencing monkeypox activity,” including men who have sex with men who meet partners online, through an app or at a social event.
What should I do if I have monkeypox symptoms?
If you notice a new rash or other monkeypox symptoms, avoid any close contact with other people until you have seen a doctor and gotten tested.
“When you see a healthcare provider, wear a mask, and remind them that the virus is circulating in the area,” the CDC says.
If you’re diagnosed with monkeypox, the agency recommends isolation at home and away from family members until the rash or lesions are gone.