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How concerned should we be about monkeypox?

Test tubes labeled “Monkeypox virus positive” are seen in this illustration taken May 22, 2022. (Reuters/Dado Ruvic/Illustration)

Global health officials have sounded the alarm over rising cases in Europe and elsewhere of monkeypox, a type of viral infection more common in West and Central Africa.

On Friday, some 80 cases of monkeypox were confirmed and another 50 are being investigated in 11 countries, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Here is what is known about the current outbreak and the relative risk of monkeypox:

How dangerous is it?

The risk to the general public is low at this time, a US public health official told reporters in a briefing on Friday.

Monkeypox is a virus that can cause symptoms such as fever, body aches and presents as a characteristic bumpy rash.

It is related to smallpox, but is generally milder, especially the West African strain of the virus which has been identified in a American case, which has a mortality rate of about 1%. Most people recover fully in two to four weeks, the official said.

The virus does not transmit as easily as the SARS-CoV-2 virus that triggered the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Experts believe the current outbreak of monkeypox is spread through close, intimate skin-to-skin contact with someone who has an active rash. That should make its spread easier to contain once infections are identified, experts said.

“COVID is transmitted through the respiratory route and is highly contagious. That doesn’t seem to be the case with monkeypox,” said Dr. Martin Hirsch of Massachusetts General Hospital.

Many – but not all – of the people who have been diagnosed in the current monkeypox outbreak are men who have sex with men, including cases in Spain linked to a sauna in the Madrid area.

What are the health experts concerned?

The recent outbreaks reported so far are atypical, according to the WHO, as they occur in countries where the virus does not circulate regularly. Scientists are looking to understand where the current cases came from and if anything about the virus has changed.

Most of the cases reported so far have been detected in the UK, Spain and Portugal. There have also been cases in Canada and Australia, and a single case of monkeypox has been confirmed in Boston, with public health officials saying more cases are likely to emerge in the United States.

WHO officials have expressed concern that more infections could arise as people gather for festivals, parties and holidays over the coming summer months in Europe and elsewhere.

How can people protect themselves against infection?

The UK has started vaccinating healthcare workers who might be at risk when caring for patients with the smallpox vaccine, which can also protect against monkeypox. The US government says it has enough smallpox vaccine stored in its Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) to vaccinate the entire US population.

There are smallpox antiviral drugs that could also be used to treat monkeypox in certain circumstances, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement.

More generally, health officials say people should avoid close personal contact with someone who has a rash or is otherwise ill. People who suspect they have monkeypox should self-isolate and seek medical attention.

What could be behind the spike in cases?

“Viruses are not new and expected,” said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Vaccine and Infectious Diseases Organization at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada.

Rasmussen said a number of factors, including increased global travel as well as climate change, have accelerated the emergence and spread of viruses. The world is also more alert to new outbreaks of any kind in the wake of the COVID pandemic, she said.

—Reporting by Michael Erman, additional reporting by Jennifer Rigby and Natalie Grover in London; Editing by Michele Gershberg and Bill Berkrot