Illustration of the monkeypox virus
Illustration: PGN

What you need to know

  • The WHO declared monkeypox a global health emergency on July 23. Less than two weeks later, the U.S. declared its domestic outbreak a public health emergency.
  • Most monkeypox cases have been linked to sexual contact, though there are other ways people can get infected.
  • Vaccines are available but can be difficult to find. Currently, men who have sex with men and their sexual partners are considered higher risk and are being prioritized.
  • Early signs of the virus include fever, chills, headaches, muscle aches, exhaustion, and swollen lymph nodes.

As of August 10, nearly 9,500 cases of monkeypox have been reported in the U.S. and 31,800 cases have been found globally. The rapid spread of the rare virus led the World Health Organization (WHO) to declare monkeypox a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) on July 23. Less than two weeks later, the U.S. declared its own public health emergency, allow the government to tap into additional federal funds for the response.

During the July 23 meeting, members of WHO’s Emergency Committee didn’t reach a consensus about whether or not to declare the outbreak a global health emergency, but WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus overruled them, saying that “we have an outbreak that has spread around the world rapidly, through new modes of transmission, about which we understand too little.” He added: “Although I am declaring a public health emergency of international concern, for the moment this is an outbreak that is concentrated among men who have sex with men, especially those with multiple sexual partners. That means that this is an outbreak that can be stopped with the right strategies in the right groups.”

Dr. Tedros also asked countries to work with communities of men who have sex with men to “design and deliver effective information and services, and to adopt measures that protect the health, human rights and dignity of affected communities.”

Here’s everything you need to know about the virus.

What is monkeypox?

As public health officials and medical professionals work to contain the monkeypox outbreak, experts are discussing the name of the virus, which some say reinforces stereotypes and stigma. To combat this, some recommend referring to the virus as mpox or mpx. While these names are in flux, PGN will use the most common term, monkeypox, so that people can find the most up-to-date information.  

Like smallpox, monkeypox is an orthopoxvirus and is a rare disease that is transmitted to humans from animals. Symptoms last up to four weeks and cases can be severe and even fatal. Monkeypox was discovered in 1958, when two outbreaks of a pox-like disease occurred in groups of monkeys being used for research, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The first-known case of a human infection was reported in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1970 in a 9-month old baby. Since then, the virus has been reported in central and western African states and mostly linked to imported animals. And while the virus has been identified in various animals, such as non-human primates and rodents, there isn’t enough information to point to the exact source.

Now, monkeypox cases are on the rise in countries all over the world with no connection to imported animals or to regions in Africa where monkeypox spread originally. According to WHO, since January 2022, monkeypox has been reported in the Americas, Africa, Europe, the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Western Pacific. Anyone can get the virus, but thus far, monkeypox has mostly affected men who have sex with men and their sexual partners.

How is monkeypox transmitted?

Direct contact from an animal, human, or contaminated object such as bed linen, eating utensils, clothing, or medical equipment used by an infected person are the main ways the virus spreads. The virus can make its way inside the body through cut skin, eyes, nose, or mouth. Transmission from one person to another is thought to occur through prolonged face-to-face contact, such as kissing, cuddling, sex and contact with body fluids, infectious rash, or scabs. People can also contract the virus through an infected animal’s scratch or bite or by preparing or eating meat from an infected animal.

There is not a lot of evidence about the transmission of monkeypox through pregnancy, but what evidence exists shows that the virus can be transmitted from an infected pregnant person to a fetus via the placenta. It is not yet known if the virus can spread through semen or vaginal fluids.

What are the signs and symptoms of monkeypox?

Once inside the body, it can take from several days up to a week before symptoms of monkeypox develop. The early signs of the virus include fever, chills, headaches, muscle aches, exhaustion, and swollen lymph nodes. After several days, a rash may appear as small red bumps which can cause pain. The rash then develops into blisters that fill with pus. In about two to four weeks, the blisters fall off. Not everyone develops all of these symptoms and some people do not develop the symptoms at all; those without any symptoms can still infect others with the virus.

How can I protect myself against monkeypox?

Risk of infection is low, but the CDC recommends the following to reduce the risk of becoming infected with the disease: 

  • If you have recently changed sexual partners, use condoms and look out for any of the above symptoms. 
  • Avoid animals that could be carrying the virus. This includes sick or dead animals and particularly those with a history of infection, such as monkeys and rodents.
  • If you know of someone who has been infected with monkeypox, avoid coming into contact with them. If you are in close contact with them, wear a face mask.
  • Do not touch an infected person’s items, such as cups, utensils, clothing, towels, or bedding.
  • Wash your hands regularly or use hand sanitizer, especially after coming into contact with people you suspect may have monkeypox.
  • If you work in a clinic or hospital, use personal protective equipment when caring for patients with confirmed or suspected monkeypox infection.
  • Cook meat thoroughly before eating. 

Is there a vaccine for monkeypox?

The U.S. has two vaccines licensed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to prevent monkeypox infection: JYNNEOS and ACAM2000. According to the CDC, because monkeypox is related to the virus that causes smallpox, these smallpox vaccines can protect people from getting monkeypox. Past data from the initial outbreak of monkeypox shows that the vaccine is at least 85 percent effective.