Did Monkeys Put A Pox On Us?–Monkeypox Cases Spread Outside Africa

Just when you thought it was safe to take off the face mask, another virus swoops in to terrorize us. The latest health scare is the appearance of monkeypox cases in the United States. I kid you not; there really is a sickness called monkey pox, and its emergence in our country is no joking matter.

Originally found in monkeys, monkeypox suggests monkeys may have put a pox on us. That’ll teach us to use them for research subjects, the monkeys are no doubt thinking. The sickness was discovered in 1958 when two outbreaks of a pox-like disease occurred in colonies of monkeys kept by researchers in Copenhagen.

Interestingly, the type of monkeys who first became ill were crab-eating macaque monkeys. Crab-eating? Maybe I’m stereotyping monkeys, but aren’t they the cute critters who eat bananas? When did they start eating crabs? And isn’t that crab-eating macaque pictured above eating a banana? Well, perhaps bananas are the dessert course following the seafood.

Apparently monkeys kept monkeypox to themselves for a few years. They didn’t share it with humans until 1970 when a case was reported in Congo. Sometimes sharing isn’t the polite thing to do, so man could’ve lived (literally) without a new medical issue to face courtesy of monkeys.

Monkeypox is normally reported in people living in the tropical rainforest regions of Central and West African with the majority of cases seen in Congo. In fact, thousands of cases are reported in Congo annually, Nevertheless, cases of this virus have occurred outside Africa (specifically Israel, Singapore, and the U.K.) which were linked to international travel or imported animals.

Fortunately for Americans, monkeypox does NOT occur naturally in the United States. Nevertheless, a monkeypox outbreak took place here in in the U.S. back in 2003. Forty-seven confirmed and probably cases were identified then in six states, but thankfully no one died.

During the 2003 outbreak, humans (Americans) contracted the illness from pet prairie dogs (people have pet prairie dogs??). These pets had come into contact with imported small mammals (read RODENTS) from the African country of Ghana offered for sale in a pet store. So you have bigger things to fear from going into a pet store than your child convincing you to bring home a cute puppy. You may bring home MONKEYPOX.

But monkeypox has reared its ugly head here in 2022. A U.S. resident tested positive for it in Boston on May 18th after returning from a trip to Canada, and a New York City resident was hospitalized at Bellevue as another possible case. According to the World Health Organization,131 confirmed cases and 106 suspected cases have been identified in nineteen countries outside of Africa, where the virus is endemic. Health experts are baffled by the illness’ spread in developed countries.

There’s good news and bad news when it comes to monkeypox. Good news? It is a rare disease which is difficult to spread. The virus typically enters the body through broken skin, the respiratory tract, or mucous membranes (eyes, nose, mouth). Of the two strains of monkeypox existing, West African and Congo Basin, the one currently being seen in patients, West African, is the milder of the two. That strain doesn’t spread as easily and has caused less deaths. The death rate in Africa is not high; only 1 in 10 people who contract monkeypox there die from it. That’s comforting unless you’re in that 10% who perish.

And, in news that could be deemed good or bad depending on your perspective, a CDC infectious disease specialist assures us that there is no need to be particularly worried about the outbreak. Why common household disinfectants can kill the monkeypox virus. (Cue the hoarding of Lysol and bleach again.) Somehow, government statements that all will be well (pun intended) don’t make me feel all that confident.

So, what’s the bad news about monkeypox? If you contract monkeypox, you may not die, but there is currently no proven safe treatment for it. (Translate that you just have to endure it.) The symptoms aren’t pleasant to suffer or even to see. The illness begins with fever, headache, muscle aches, and exhaustion. The lymph nodes swell. Then comes the “fun” part.

One to three days after the fever begins, a rash appears, usually on the face, similar to chickenpox. It starts as flat red marks that become raised blisters filled with pus. Yuk! These can spread all over your body, including in your eyes and on your private parts. Three-quarters of patients with monkeypox have lesions on their palms and the soles of their feet. The illness lasts 2-4 weeks.

A test already exists for detecting the virus. It is a PCR test of samples from skin lesions. So, nothing is stuck up your nose, but you have to have pus-filled lesions on you from which samples can be taken.

So, the illness isn’t pleasant. (That’s an understatement.) What can be done to prevent it? A preventative does exist–the smallpox vaccine. Monkeypox has symptoms similar to smallpox which was eradicated in humans in 1980. Since smallpox vaccinations are no longer given, the general public no longer has immunity to poxviruses. While they may not be immune, the public could receive smallpox vaccines if necessary since the U.S. has stockpiled millions of doses of smallpox vaccine in case of an outbreak.

Regardless of what the illness du jour is, our health is never anything to monkey around with. While it’s important to be in the know about new outbreaks, knowledge must be tempered with common sense. Health officials should be aware of and prepared to deal with illnesses whether common or rare. But we don’t need to panic just because an outbreak is highlighted in the media. Use common sense to protect yourself–keep your distance from someone who is ill, regularly wash your hands, and, for heaven’s sake, don’t buy a prairie dog for a pet.

WONDER-ing Woman:

Are you numb to new health scares after the COVID-19 pandemic? How worried are you about contracting monkeypox? Is the fact that illnesses once confined to specific locations on the globe are spreading across it a sign that it really is a “small world after all?”