How worried do you need to be about monkeypox?

As cases of the rare monkeypox virus continue to surface around the world, experts insist there’s no need to hit the panic button.

After more than two years of coronavirus pandemic, the idea of monkeypox (another animal-borne virus) hitting our shores is a little unsettling.

So what is monkeypox?

A rare infection from the same family as smallpox, monkeypox is usually found in Central and West Africa.

However, recently, monkeypox has been reported in non-endemic countries including the UK, some parts of Europe, the US and now Australia.

While the World Health Organization declared smallpox eradicated in 1980, monkeypox has continued to occur.

How does monkeypox spread?

The virus is spread from animals to humans, mostly monkeys.

Unlike Covid, it does not spread easily between people.

“It’s not airborne, like Covid,” Mater Health director of Infectious Diseases Dr Paul Griffin says.

“To be infected you need to have direct skin-to-skin contact with infected blood or bodily fluids, such as the fluid in the blisters that are a symptom of monkeypox.

“It is relatively more difficult to transmit than other viruses and won’t be the next pandemic.”

The virus may also spread through contact with infected surfaces such as contaminated clothing or towels.

Why are we seeing a monkeypox outbreak?

Experts believe the waning of immunity from smallpox vaccination may be contributing to the outbreak.

“It is more than 40-50 years since mass (smallpox) vaccination ceased,” Head of the Kirby Institute biosecurity program Professor Raina MacIntyre says.

Increased travel may be another factor.

“We are waiting on information from the outbreak investigation to review risk factors for infection and the epidemiologic links between cases in the UK and elsewhere,” Prof MacIntyre says.

“This is the first time there has been travel-related spread from outside of the African continent.

“There have been a number of travel-related importations to the UK and other countries from (Africa), but now the source of spread appears to be the UK, which is unprecedented.”

What are the symptoms and effects of monkeypox?

Signs of possible infection can include fever, chills, muscle aches, backache, swollen lymph nodes and exhaustion.

People also usually develop a blistering rash that begins on the face, then spreads and appears similar to chickenpox.

“The rash can become lesions filled with fluid that then crust over, like chickenpox, and fall off,” Murdoch University Professor of Immunology Cassandra Berry explains.

Can monkeypox be treated?

The good news is there are vaccines and antivirals available to treat monkeypox and the vast majority of people who get monkeypox recover after a few weeks.

While monkeypox cases are occasionally severe, and some deaths have been reported, risks to the general public are very low.

How can you reduce risk of contracting monkeypox?

Professor Berry recommends maintaining good hand hygiene.

“I don’t think you will bump into this virus in the supermarket – infections will be sporadic,” Prof Berry says.

“Unlike Covid where it is hard to tell if someone has it, monkeypox is easier to detect.

“So, if a case arises in a community, we can treat and isolate that person and could vaccinate close contacts or people living in that area.”

How worried should we be about monkeypox?

“Be aware of the symptoms, but don’t panic,” Dr Griffin says.

“The number of cases in Australia is likely to remain small and we have safe and effective treatments available.”

Written by Sarah Marinos.