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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that it is investigating a case of monkeypox in an American who recently traveled from Nigeria to the U.S. The patient is currently hospitalized in Dallas.
Monkeypox is a rare but potentially serious viral illness. The CDC said in a media statement that it is working with airline, state, and local health officials to contact passengers and others who may have been in contact with the patient during two flights: one from Lagos, Nigeria, to Atlanta on July 8 (arriving on July 9); the other from Atlanta to Dallas on July 9.
Monkeypox isn’t a virus most people in the U.S. are familiar with, and social media is already buzzing about this case. Should you be concerned? We asked infectious disease experts to explain everything you need to know.
What is monkeypox, exactly?
Monkeypox is a rare disease caused by the monkeypox virus, according to the CDC. It was first discovered in 1958, when two outbreaks of a pox-like disease happened in colonies of monkeys that were kept for research.
The first human case of monkeypox was reported in 1970 in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Since then, other cases have been reported in people in other central and western African countries.
The monkeypox virus is related to the variola virus, which causes smallpox. Monkeypox cases are rare overall, but are most common in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which sees more than 1,000 recorded cases a year, per CDC data. The last documented cases of monkeypox in the U.S. were in 2003, when a small outbreak led to 47 cases that were linked to a shipment of animals imported from Ghana.
What are the symptoms of monkeypox?
The signs of monkeypox are similar to those of smallpox. The illness starts with these symptoms, according to the CDC:
Swollen lymph nodes
Within a few days, an infected person will develop a rash that usually starts on the face and spreads to other parts of the body. The bumps then go through different stages before they fall off:
Macules (flat, discolored bumps)
Papules (raised area of skin)
Pustules (small pumps that contain pus)
Scabs (dry, crusty bumps)
Overall, monkeypox lasts for two to four weeks.
How do you get monkeypox? Is it contagious?
A person can get monkeypox when they come into contact with the virus from an animal, person, or materials that were contaminated with the virus, the CDC says. The virus can then enter the body through broken skin or the eyes, nose, or mouth.
A person can also get the virus from an animal by being bitten or scratched, preparing bush meat, or by having direct or indirect contact with body fluids or lesions from infected people. The main disease carrier of monkeypox is unknown, although African rodents are suspected, says infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
“It’s not all that contagious,” but it can spread from person to person, says William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
The CDC specifically notes that human-to-human transmission is thought to mostly happen through large respiratory droplets. These can’t travel more than a few feet and people need to have “prolonged” face-to-face contact in order to spread the virus. “Outbreaks in which human-to-human spread is prominent have occurred,” says Dr. Adalja. However, he adds, “the 2003 outbreak in the U.S. was successfully contained.”
People who traveled with the infected passenger were required to wear face masks due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the CDC notes. As a result, it’s thought that the risk of monkeypox spreading to people who had contact with this patient is low.
Should you be worried about monkeypox?
Monkeypox can be serious and, in Africa, the CDC says that the virus kills as many as one in 10 people who become infected with it.
The experts we talked to say monkey pox is “not a major concern” for the average American. “It’s unlikely that the virus will spread to the U.S. unless it got into native rodent species,” Dr. Adalja explains.
However, he adds that this one-off case “does highlight the continual threat from infectious disease and the need for a robust public health infrastructure to detect and contain these threats.”
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