Monkeypox is a relatively rare disease that entered common public knowledge in 2022, as an outbreak spread within Europe. Cases are usually restricted to Africa and it usually causes only a mild illness. Monkeypox is a virus from the same virus family as smallpox, a devastating condition that has been defeated worldwide. It's very different from the COVID-19 or chickenpox viruses. Why is it called monkeypox? It was first discovered in monkeys in 1958. It took 10 years for the first cases to be recorded in humans, and the most likely transmission is still from animals to humans, rather than human-to-human. There are two strains, one from western Africa and one from central Africa. The cases in Europe are the western African strain, which causes a milder illness. It's important to emphasise that only a small number of cases have reached Europe, and people are not severely unwell, but scientists are investigating why it seems to be spreading more quickly from human to human than previously. One working theory is that now that COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted, people are travelling more, but have lost some natural immunity to fight viruses during the prolonged period of lockdowns and mask-wearing.
Like other viruses such as swine flu and COVID-19, it is possible for certain viruses to move from animals to humans. Monkeys don't seem to get unwell from monkeypox. The virus enters the body through broken skin, the respiratory tract or mucous membranes (the eyes, nose, mouth and genitals). Humans can catch it from animals by a bite or scratch, bush meat preparation, direct contact with body fluids, or indirect contact via contaminated clothes or bedding. Similar to flu viruses, human-to-human transmission of monkeypox is thought to occur primarily through respiratory droplets - you would need to be fairly close face-to-face and for a prolonged period - and these droplets are breathed in from coughs, sneezes or talking. It's also possible to pass on the virus through any forms of close contact such as sexual contact or contact with broken skin or bodily fluids such as blood, and from contaminated materials.
Monkeypox symptoms tend to begin with viral symptoms that we will all have experienced, especially in the COVID-19 era: fevers, muscle aches, tiredness and headache. The symptoms to look out for in monkeypox are swollen, painful lymph nodes and a distinctive bumpy rash. Inflamed lymph nodes are common in many viral illnesses, so there's no need for alarm, unless you develop a unique rash. A few days after the fever and viral symptoms start, a rash develops on the face. Initially it starts as lumps that get bigger, become fluid-filled, and then scab over and dry out. From the face, the rash spreads to other parts of the body. If you have come into contact with someone with monkeypox, there is a period where you may be infected but not yet be showing any symptoms. This is thought to be between five days and three weeks.
There is no specific treatment for the virus, but there are vaccines that can help to reduce the chance of infection. People who have had a high-risk contact with a proven case of monkeypox may be offered a vaccine to prevent them from developing symptoms. Like other infections, people who are infected or have had high-risk contacts should self-isolate for 21 days – the time period they could still be carrying the infection and not showing symptoms. If people become unwell, they can receive supportive treatment in the hospital to help their body respond to the virus and recover. You should call your doctor or sexual health clinic if you think you have been in contact with someone with monkeypox or you have symptoms that seem to fit.