How serious is monkeypox and what are the symptoms?

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Since 7 May, the UK Health Security Agency has announced three cases of monkeypox, two of which required hospital care


16 May 2022

Monkeypox has only been found in wild monkeys once

Ger Bosma / Alamy Stock Photo


What is monkeypox?

Monkeypox is caused by a virus that is a relative of smallpox. As the name suggests, it was first identified in monkeys, and is mainly confined to West and Central Africa.

Why is it in the news?

On 7 May, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) announced that someone had contracted monkeypox after recently travelling to Nigeria. The individual developed a rash on 29 April and returned to the UK on 4 May, when they were hospitalised. Two days later, a laboratory test confirmed that the individual had the monkeypox virus. Contact tracing began on 11 May, with no contacts reporting monkeypox symptoms to date.

One week later, the UKHSA announced that two other people, not related to the case announced on 7 May, had been diagnosed with the monkeypox virus. These individuals live together, with one requiring hospital care and the other isolating.

Monkeypox was first reported in the UK in 2018. Seven cases have since been identified, all related to travelling to or from Nigeria.

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What are the symptoms?

Monkeypox is usually mild, with most people recovering without treatment within 14 to 21 days. Initial symptoms can include fever, headache, muscle aches, backache, swollen lymph nodes, chills and exhaustion.

A chickenpox-like rash can develop, often beginning on the face, before spreading, particularly to the hands and feet. The rash goes through several stages, developing into papules and fluid-filled pustules, before eventually forming a scab that falls off.

How serious is the disease?

Monkeypox is usually mild, however, it has a reported death rate of between 1 per cent and 10 per cent, with children being most likely to die.

How does monkeypox spread?

Monkeypox can be caught from infected wild animals in parts of West and Central Africa. This may occur if you are bitten or if you touch the animal’s blood, fluids, spots, blisters or scabs. Monkeypox may also be transmitted by eating the undercooked meat of an infected animal.

The virus doesn’t pass very easily between people, however, transmission can occur via contact with bodily fluids, blisters or scabs, or getting close enough to breathe in large airborne droplets. These droplets generally can’t travel more than 1 metre or so, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Touching clothing, bedding or towels used by someone with monkeypox may also be a risk.

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Speaking of the latest two cases, Colin Brown at UKHSA said in a statement: “While investigations remain ongoing to determine the source of infection, it is important to emphasise it [monkeypox] does not spread easily between people and requires close personal contact with an infected symptomatic person.

“The overall risk to the general public remains very low.”

So why the fuss?

Any disease that circulates in animals and can be passed to people has potential to cause a new pandemic, if it mutates to become more deadly or more easily transmissible. Monkeypox has no specific treatment nor specific vaccine licensed for use.

Nevertheless, the smallpox vaccine gives immunity to monkeypox and can be used as a treatment if given soon after exposure.

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