Anyone can get monkeypox, but in the latest outbreak, the virus is predominantly spreading among gay and bisexual men. Officials noted Monday that most of the people affected reported some level of sexual activity.
That doesn’t mean the virus is sexually transmitted, but officials say it shows that prolonged skin-to-skin contact is one of the major ways monkeypox is now spreading.
As of Monday evening, data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows 1,972 probable or confirmed monkeypox cases in the US.
As of now, the risk of monkeypox is low, according to the CDC, but public health experts say there are still things you can do to protect yourself, especially if you’re in the pool of higher-risk people.
That pool includes men who have sex with men, particularly those who have had multiple sexual partners in the past two weeks in an area with known monkeypox cases.
Here’s what to know.
How monkeypox spreads
Symptoms usually start within three weeks of exposure to the monkeypox virus and last two to four weeks.
The virus typically triggers a rash with lesions that can be extremely painful. The pain may even be enough to push some people to go to the hospital, but that seems to be rare.
The rash often starts on the face and spreads to other parts of the body, the CDC says. Some people will also have a fever at first.
A person with monkeypox can give the virus to others at any point until their rash has healed, the scabs have fallen off and they have a fresh layer of skin on the affected area.
The virus transmits primarily though close, skin-on-skin physical contact, but it can also spread when you touch objects like sheets or towels that may have been used by somebody with monkeypox, as well as through close face-to-face interactions like kissing.
This outbreak is a little different
The latest outbreak looks a little different, according to Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, director of the CDC’s Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention.
Monkeypox isn’t considered a sexually transmitted disease, but most people who have gotten it in the US recently report some level of sexual activity, he said Monday. That can include penetrative encounters as well as oral sex.
“Some people have had the rash all over their body or different parts of their body, but there are many who are presenting with the genital and anal lesions as their first indication of illness,” Daskalakis said. “That sort of speaks for that close prolonged contact.”
The virus may theoretically be transmitted through respiratory droplets, he said, but the CDC is not seeing that happen in this outbreak.
“I can’t prove how efficient it is. It doesn’t seem to be very efficient. So it’s more contact with skin to skin, more than face-to-face contact.
“But in the harm reduction discussion, it’s really important to say what we know and don’t know,” Daskalakis said. “It’s just important for folks to know that it’s not impossible to transmit monkeypox that way so they can really adjust behavior as needed.”