Monkeypox cases rise in Oklahoma, across U.S. What to know about vaccination, testing

Monkeypox cases have risen rapidly this week across the United States, and Oklahoma health experts want residents to be knowledgeable about the infection and how it spreads.

Oklahoma hasn’t seen anywhere near the number of cases in other parts of the country, like New York and California. But cases are rising here, too — the state’s case count doubled Tuesday, rising from four to eight cases, and a ninth has since been reported.

“This is not COVID, in the sense that I don’t think that (monkeypox) has the capabilities of spreading in mass like COVID,” said Dr. James Kirk, an infectious disease specialist with SSM Health St. Anthony. “But it does have the capability of becoming something that is endemic, and it will be with us for a long time if we don’t find a way to get ahead of it right now.”

Here’s what to know about the disease, including testing and vaccination options.

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What is monkeypox?

Monkeypox is part of a type of viruses called orthopoxviruses, which have been around for centuries. Monkeypox is endemic in parts of Africa, and it can spread from animals to humans, humans to animals, and humans to humans.

The United States doesn’t regularly see monkeypox cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but thousands of cases have now been reported in the country since a global outbreak began this year.

How prevalent is monkeypox?

Nine cases of monkeypox have been recorded in Oklahoma, of the more than 4,600 cases across the U.S. The state of New York has recorded the most cases, with 1,228 as of Wednesday, followed by California with 799 cases.

Six of the Oklahoma cases are in central Oklahoma, and three are in northeast Oklahoma, according to the Oklahoma State Department of Health.

In each of the cases recorded in Oklahoma so far, the person with monkeypox had either recently traveled, attended an event or had been known to be in contact with someone who had monkeypox. In other words, health officials so far have been able to trace where the transmission stemmed from in each of the cases.

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What are the symptoms of monkeypox?

Fever, chills and swollen lymph nodes are among the symptoms that can develop with monkeypox. Most people who get monkeypox also develop lesions on their body that may look like pimples or blisters.

The lesions can be painful. They can appear on various parts of the body, including around the mouth or inside the mouth, around the genital area, or in or near the rectum.

In some cases, the lesions could resemble sexually transmitted infections like herpes or syphilis.

How does it spread?

Experts believe monkeypox spreads primarily through skin-to-skin contact, which can include (but isn’t limited to) sex. Monkeypox isn’t considered a sexually transmitted infection. It can also spread through respiratory droplets or respiratory aerosols in the air, or through contact with clothing or bedding used by an infected person.

Monkeypox is significantly less contagious than COVID-19. With COVID-19, a fairly brief, casual encounter could lead to spreading the virus to someone else.

Monkeypox is different in that it’s generally spread through close, skin-to-skin contact.

“It's quite different from COVID,” said Kirk, with SSM Health. “We used to say that a person who was within six feet of somebody with active COVID for 15 minutes had a pretty high-risk exposure. With monkeypox, it would take about three hours within six feet to be considered much of an exposure.”

In the current outbreak, the virus has mainly been spreading among men who have sex with men. But anyone can get monkeypox if they are in close contact with an infected person.

How long is a person contagious?

A person with monkeypox can spread the virus from the time their symptoms begin until their rash has fully healed and a new layer of skin has formed over where the lesions were. That can take two to four weeks, health officials said.

People are not thought to be contagious unless they are showing symptoms of monkeypox, according to the CDC.

How do I get tested?

Experts and health officials have recommended that if you suspect you have monkeypox or think you might have been exposed to monkeypox, to contact your health care provider or call the state Health Department’s on-call epidemiologist at 405-426-8710.

A health care provider can arrange testing for monkeypox, which is done by swabbing a lesion.

“If you do have symptoms of monkeypox, and you do need to get tested, we can get you tested, whether it's through the health department, or whether it's through a commercial lab,” said state epidemiologist Jolianne Stone.

Is there a monkeypox vaccine? How do I get one?

There is a monkeypox vaccine, but it’s in limited supply in Oklahoma.

Oklahoma has only received 336 doses of the JYNNEOS vaccine, which is given in a two-dose regimen, according to the federal Health and Human Services department.

The state Health Department hasn’t answered questions about how many of those 336 doses have been administered.

Right now, the monkeypox vaccine is mainly being used for post-exposure prophylaxis in Oklahoma, Stone said. That means it’s given after someone has an exposure to someone infected with monkeypox to prevent infection or to make symptoms milder.

Some people who may come into contact with monkeypox through their work — like health care professionals or lab technicians, for example — may also be able to receive a monkeypox vaccine, she said.

There’s currently no way to request a monkeypox vaccine in Oklahoma, unlike in some other states where case counts are higher.

Instead, as the state Health Department investigates cases of monkeypox and determines contacts who may be at high risk for developing it, “we would work with them on getting vaccination,” Stone said.

The vaccine’s effect depends on the timeframe in which it’s given, said Dr. David Holden, president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association. The CDC recommends a monkeypox vaccine be given within four days of the day of the exposure for the best chance to prevent the disease.

“Let’s say you think you have an exposure to someone who has monkeypox … if you get the vaccine relatively soon, it can prevent you from getting monkeypox,” Holden said.

Getting vaccinated four to 14 days after the exposure might not prevent the disease, but it could reduce symptoms.

What precautions should I take?

“We need to be very vigilant, not fearful, not overreactive, but just recognize that this is something we can do something about … unlike an airborne virus, like COVID, which was basically sort of almost unstoppable,” Holden said.

If you’re exposed to someone with monkeypox, contact the state Health Department or your health care provider to seek vaccination.

If you have symptoms of monkeypox, contact the state Health Department or your health care provider to get tested and learn about options for treatment. In the meantime, isolate from other members of your household — including pets, Holden said.

Avoid close, skin-to-skin contact with someone who has a rash that looks like monkeypox. That includes touching the rash, kissing, cuddling, having sex, or sharing utensils or drinks.

If someone in your home has monkeypox, don’t touch their clothing, bedding or anything else that might have come into contact with the infected person’s rash.

For more information about monkeypox and how to prevent the spread of it, visit the state Health Department’s website or guidance from the CDC.

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: What to know about monkeypox in Oklahoma, including how to get vaccine