Monkeypox arrives in Erie, public health threat less because spread is slower

A monkeypox outbreak that has reached Erie is not the widespread public health threat that COVID-19 has been for the past two-and-a-half years, state and local health officials said.

That's primarily because monkeypox — a viral illness similar to smallpox but less severe — doesn't spread as easily as COVID-19.

"It's totally different," said Howard Nadworny, M.D., a Saint Vincent Hospital infectious diseases specialist and Erie County Department of Health adviser. "Monkeypox is spread by very close, personal contact. Most cases are spread by prolonged, physical contact."

An Erie medical clinic reported a monkeypox case Wednesday to the county health department. Local health officials declined to provide details of the case due to patient privacy laws and messages left with the clinic were not returned.

It is believed to be the first case of monkeypox ever reported in Erie County. The current worldwide outbreak, which began earlier this year, has infected 32 Pennsylvania residents as of Thursday morning, the Pennsylvania Department of Health reported.

The Erie case was the only one reported in northwestern Pennsylvania.

"Right now we are working closely with the state health department," said Erin Mrenak, director of the county health department. "The state is taking on this first disease investigation and we will likely do additional ones."

Closer look:Rising reports of rare monkeypox cases in US and around the world raise concern

An illustration of monkeypox virus particles. This virus, endemic to the rainforests in Central and West Africa, causes disease in humans and monkeys, although its natural hosts are rodents.
An illustration of monkeypox virus particles. This virus, endemic to the rainforests in Central and West Africa, causes disease in humans and monkeys, although its natural hosts are rodents.

How it's spread

The current monkeypox outbreak has spread to 25 U.S. states, as well as Europe and South America.

Gay, bisexual or other men who have sex with men are at the highest risk for monkeypox in this outbreak, though the virus is not sexually transmitted and can spread in other ways.

"Anyone can get it, but infections tend to be among people who have random or multiple sex partners," Nadworny said. "However, we have also seen cases in children and spouses, so it's also related to families who are in close contact with one another."

Monkeypox is often passed person-to-person through close contact with respiratory secretions, infected skin lesions or recently contaminated objects, according to the World Health Organization.

More: What's it like to have monkeypox? I spoke to someone who had it.

Symptoms and treatment

The primary symptom is a rash that can look like pimples or blisters that appear on the face, inside the mouth, and on other parts of the body, like the hands, feet, chest, genitals or anus, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. A person can also develop flu-like symptoms like a fever, headache and chills.

Until recently, there were no treatments specifically for monkeypox but two new vaccines were approved by Food & Drug Administration: JYNNEOS (also known as Imvamune or Imvanex) and ACAM2000. The supply of JYNNEOS is limited and ACAM2000 is not recommended for people with weakened immune systems or who are pregnant.

Monkeypox and smallpox viruses are genetically similar, which means that antiviral drugs and vaccines developed to protect against smallpox also may be used to prevent and treat monkeypox virus infections. Smallpox vaccinations are about 85% effective in preventing monkeypox infection, the World Health Organization reported.

Most people who develop monkeypox recover completely within a month, Nadworny said. The mortality rate is 1% to 3%.

"If you think you are at risk or have been in contact with monkeypox, you should talk with your health-care provider," Denise Johnson, M.D., Pennsylvania physician general and acting secretary of health, said Thursday during a visit to Erie. "They can walk you through the process of evaluating whether or not you are a candidate for a vaccine or any other types of treatments."

The virus is called monkeypox because it was first identified in laboratory monkeys in 1958, Nature reported. Human monkeypox was first found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1970.

Erie News Now first reported this story. USA TODAY contributed to this story.

Contact David Bruce at Follow him on Twitter @ETNBruce.

This article originally appeared on Erie Times-News: Monkeypox in Erie: Virus detected in as outbreak spreads