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Staying Safe from Monkeypox

Here's what you need to know about the virus to stay healthy

By Rosie Wolf Williams

Monkeypox has gone viral, and not only in a social media format. This virus comes on the heels of COVID with a similar reminder to exercise caution without panic. Monkeypox can affect all ages and genders but can be avoided through careful hygiene and common sense.

Healthcare workers administering monkeypox vaccinations. Next Avenue
Monkeypox is not exclusive to any particular community, and it's not exclusive to being transmitted through sexual contact.  |  Credit: PBS

What is Monkeypox?

Monkeypox is a viral illness in the same family of viruses as the smallpox virus. Although it is less contagious than COVID, monkeypox equals pre-vaccine COVID mortality rates, according to Meghan May, professor of microbiology and infectious disease at the University of New England and founder of Science & Stories.

Initially discovered in central and west Africa, monkeypox is zoonotic, meaning that transmission can occur through human-to-human and animal-to-human contact with bodily fluids or lesions of infected animals.

Yet, the virus has spread in recent months into several other countries, including the United States. As a result, the World Health Organization (WHO) has called the outbreak a global emergency; the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) declared monkeypox a public health emergency, allowing a direct response to the outbreak and the ability to access vital funds.

How Is Monkeypox Different from the COVID-19 Virus?

Monkeypox and COVID are both viruses, but they are not precisely the same. "To draw a parallel or an analogy, this would be more or less like saying humans are animals and so are earthworms, but we are extremely different," says May. 

"Monkeypox and SARS-CoV-2 kind of fall in that type of comparison. One of the key ways they're different is how complex their lifeforms are. Monkeypox is a virus with a DNA-based genome, and they tend to be more stable. COVID has RNA as a genome," she says. 

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How Is Monkeypox Different from Shingles?

Shingles and monkeypox have similar rashes, and both tend to be very painful. However, "shingles are incredibly distinct in the way it presents on the body," explains May. 

Monkeypox rash might be located on or near the genitals or anus but can also appear on the limbs, hands and feet, chest, face or mouth.

"It tends to be in one very discrete area. When the individual recovers from chickenpox, the virus isn't gone from their body. It hides in their neurons, in their nerve cells."

May continues, "As an older adult, you have some change of season, a stressful event, or something that knocks your immune system; that virus might start replicating. It creeps down that neuron and creates a shingles rash in one area."

As reported by the CDC, monkeypox rash might be located on or near the genitals or anus but can also appear on the limbs, hands and feet, chest, face or mouth. 

The lesions go through stages, looking like small blisters or pimples, and scabbing before healing. Other symptoms of monkeypox include fatigue, sore throat, and headaches, among other symptoms.

How Is It Spread?

"Monkeypox virus is expelled in respiratory droplets of infected people, and usually happens between people in crowded conditions or between a patient and caregiver," says May.

Like chickenpox (the virus that can cause shingles), monkeypox can be transmitted to another person from skin-to-skin contact, including but not exclusive to sexual contact. 

A person's hand with a monkeypox lesion. Next Avenue
Monkeypox lesions go through stages, looking like small blisters or pimples, and scabbing before healing. Other symptoms of monkeypox include fatigue, sore throat, and headaches, among other symptoms.  |  Credit: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

For example, someone infected with monkeypox may touch an object with a part of their body that has active lesions. Another person could then come into contact with that object and become infected.

Monkeypox is not exclusive to any particular community, and it's not exclusive to being transmitted through sexual contact. "Because skin-on-skin contact is a very efficient way of transmitting monkeypox, that includes sexual contact," May explains. "But that doesn't mean it's exclusively a sexually transmitted disease." 

"If you had sexual contact with a person with head lice, you're probably going to get head lice, but that doesn't make it a sexually transmitted disease," she adds.

You May Already Have Some Protection

The monkeypox virus is a close relative of the smallpox virus, and that smallpox vaccination you may have received as a child could help protect you from monkeypox. 

The CDC notes that data from Africa shows the smallpox vaccine is about 85% effective in monkeypox protection. Nonetheless, May offers a caveat, saying that it isn't sure how much residual immunity is present in long-ago smallpox vaccinations. 

"What we don't know is if a 75-year-old who was vaccinated as a child, do they still have that immunity, is it still protective, and to what extent? Patients have been almost exclusively under fifty, and the thought behind that is that most older adults in their late sixties to seventies and beyond received a smallpox vaccine," she says.

Finally, vaccines are available but limited. If you aren't sure you have received a smallpox vaccination in the last few years, go to the CDC website to find out if you are eligible to receive a vaccine. 

Rosie Wolf Williams
Rosie Wolf Williams is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in USA Weekend, Woman's Day, AARP the Magazine and elsewhere. Read More
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