Just as it seems like we are transitioning back to (a new) normal after the height of of COVID-19, another illness is beginning to cause concern.
Monkeypox is a rare disease caused by an infection with the monkeypox virus and is similar to smallpox. Beginning in January 2022, the United States, as well as many other countries around the world where monkeypox has not historically been reported, have been experiencing an outbreak of the disease. Understandably, this increase in numbers, as well as news coverage of the disease, has many wondering: Is this the next COVID-19?
“There are many things that set COVID-19 and monkeypox apart,” explains White-Wilson Immediate Care Nurse Practitioner Mary Jean Middleton. “First and foremost, monkeypox has been around for decades whereas COVID-19 was a novel virus, first seen in late 2019. Therefore, we have significantly more research on monkeypox available to us than we did in 2020 for COVID-19”
According to the CDC, monkeypox was first discovered in animals in 1958 and the first recorded human case occurred in 1970. Until recently, the majority of monkeypox cases were found in central and western Africa. Occasional cases were found in travelers who had been to countries where the disease usually occurs or in imported livestock, but the transmission was generally minimal.
“One of the hardest parts of fighting COVID-19 was the fact that we knew little about it,” says APRN Middleton. “We had to quickly learn how it spread, how to prevent it and if it could be cured before we could really make any headway against it. With monkeypox, we have decades of experience and research to work off.”
Like COVID-19, monkeypox can occur in patients of all ages and can be spread through respiratory droplets and bodily fluids as well as physical contact with infected people and items. However, the duration of the contact and exposure to respiratory droplets plays a role in the spread of monkeypox.
“The current data shows that for monkeypox to spread from one person to another, there must be direct, prolonged exposure to respiratory secretions and bodily fluids,” say APRN Middleton. “That means you have to be in extremely close proximity to the person for a while, such as is the case with intimate contact or physical affection. A cursory pass by a person is not going to infect you nor is being in their presence for a few minutes. This is why the majority of the monkeypox cases we see are the result of close contact, like that between intimate partners. That’s a big difference from COVID, where the virus was spread unknowingly during quick interactions or in public spaces.,” she continues. “Add in the fact that only symptomatic people can spread the virus and infections are visible to those who are infected and to others, and you can see while it is much easier to get COVID-19 than monkeypox.”
A person with monkeypox can spread it to others from the time symptoms start until the rash has fully healed and a fresh layer of skin has formed. The illness typically lasts 2-4 weeks.
Signs and symptoms of monkeypox as well as pictures of monkeypox rashes can be viewed on the CDC website. Perhaps one of the biggest differences between the two diseases lies in the availability of vaccines.
“As I am sure we all remember, COVID-19 vaccines didn’t even exist until late 2020,” she says, “with most people unable to receive them until Spring of 2021 through FDA emergency-use authorizations. For monkeypox, there are two current vaccines with full FDA approval that have been on the market since the 2010s. So, we are able to get ahead of this before it gets bad like in the case of COVID-19.”
While monkeypox vaccine eligibility is determined by each state’s department of health, most recommend a monkeypox vaccine for people who have been exposed to monkeypox or who may be more likely to get monkeypox, including:
- People who have been identified by public health officials as a contact of someone with monkeypox.
- People who know one of their sexual partners in the past two weeks has been diagnosed with monkeypox.
- People who have had multiple sexual partners in the past two weeks in an area with known monkeypox transmission.
“To sum everything up, I understand why people would be concerned with an outbreak of monkeypox following so closely behind COVID-19,” concludes APRN Middleton, “but you really don’t have much to worry about. We, as a country, are so much more prepared to fight monkeypox than we were with COVID-19, in part because of the lessons we learned over the past three years.”
As always, if you have any concerns about your risk for monkeypox or think you may have been exposed, we at White-Wilson Medical Center are ready to help you through.”
This Myth Is Busted!
Mary Jean Middleton, APRN is a registered Nurse Practitioner caring for patients at the White-Wilson Immediate Care and Family Medicine clinics in Destin, Florida. Learn more about her approach to patient care here.