(ORDO NEWS) — Like its close relative, the smallpox virus, monkeypox is a pathogen of the orthopoxvirus family. It is transmitted through contaminated body fluids or through close contact with infected people and other animals.
About a week or two after infection, the virus causes fever, headache, muscle aches, swollen lymph nodes, and exhaustion. After a few days, a rash may appear, usually on or around the face, which may develop into blisters and pustules that crust over and heal over the following weeks.
Although similar in many ways to smallpox, monkeypox is fortunately considered to be self-limiting, making it much less severe.
However, monkeypox is still considered a serious disease, with permanent complications ranging from the effects of sepsis and encephalitis to blindness due to an eye infection. Without medical treatment or vaccination, nearly one in ten infected people is at risk of fatal complications, especially among young children.
Compared to the horrors of smallpox, which claimed the lives of almost one in three infected people at its peak, monkeypox may not seem so terrible. But if the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s better to be safe than sorry when it comes to potentially deadly viruses.
Why is the disease called monkeypox?
The name “monkey pox” was coined in 1958 after an outbreak of the virus among test monkeys at a research center in Copenhagen.
However, don’t let the name fool you – although monkeys can become infected and transmit the virus, it is most commonly transmitted through popular sources of so-called “bush meat” such as dormis and African squirrels.
The first human case was not identified until 1970, when the World Health Organization (WHO) focused its efforts on eradicating smallpox in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Today, the majority of infections still occur in this central African country, although outbreaks have been reported in a number of neighboring countries.
Why is monkeypox spreading around the world right now?
While outbreaks of monkeypox made headlines in 2022, this is not the first time the virus has been detected outside of African populations.
In mid-2003, the CDC reported 71 cases in six US states, with 35 cases confirmed by laboratory testing to be monkeypox virus. All of these confirmed cases involved infected prairie dogs purchased from an animal distributor in Illinois, which were in turn infected with Gambian giant rats and dormis imported from Ghana.
Three cases were also reported in the UK in 2018. Surprisingly, one of the cases was not directly related to the other two. They all recently traveled to Nigeria, where monkeypox is known to circulate.
At first glance, the multiple simultaneous outbreaks that took place in mid-2022 may look like a potential pandemic, especially given the recent emergence of the devastating SARS-CoV-2.
Numerous suspected and confirmed cases around the world, including the US, UK, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Australia, hint at unprecedented, widespread transmission of the virus.
Most of those infected appear to be the result of close intimate contact (mostly between men) and were diagnosed after contacting medical facilities. No deaths have been reported at the time of this writing.
Since there is no evidence of a mutation that could increase the virulence of the microbe, it is likely that the outbreaks could be caused by the sudden surge in travel due to the easing of COVID restrictions. Increased vigilance regarding personal health may also help explain the epidemiology of the outbreak.
Should we be worried about the monkeypox pandemic?
Apart from the advice to remain vigilant, the WHO sees no need to restrict travel or implement a vaccination program.
In the past, outbreaks were limited to a handful of infected people, with little to no person-to-person transmission. Therefore, distribution was limited.
Unlike SARS-CoV-2, monkeypox cannot spread through the air. Because the smallpox vaccine is effective against the virus, the authorities are already heavily armed if concerns continue to mount.
The apparent spread of the virus is indicative of the ease with which viruses move with increased travel and reduced hygiene. From measles to the flu, there are more and far more deadly pathogens that we are already familiar with and will no doubt increase in number as the world opens up.
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