As if a pandemic wasn’t enough, a dangerous new virus is spreading around the world. About two weeks ago, monkeypox – a pathogen native to West and Central Africa that causes flu-like symptoms and a rash – showed up in places where it’s not usually found. found.
Portugal, Spain and the UK have reported a few dozen cases between them. And now the United States. Massachusetts authorities detected the infection on Tuesday evening, and the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention quickly confirmed it.
But don’t panic. The world has contained outbreaks of monkeypox before. And we’re even better prepared for the virus now that we’ve had three years of practice with the novel coronavirus.
“I’m not worried about anything resembling an epidemic,” Irwin Redlener, founding director of Columbia University’s National Disaster Preparedness Center, told The Daily Beast. He was using the epidemiological definition of an outbreak, which is the sudden spread of an unusual disease, but in a small geographic area rather than globally.
The handful of monkeypox cases in a handful of countries are not yet considered an epidemic, by the standards of many scientists. Could the virus spread to more people in more countries? Yes. But don’t expect it to be anything like the spread of COVID. “SARS-CoV is much more contagious than other infections,” Stephanie James, head of a viral testing lab at Regis University in Colorado, told The Daily Beast.
Slower spread means authorities have more time to confirm cases, isolate infected people and trace their recent contact with others. There is no specific monkeypox vaccinebut the virus is similar to smallpox, so smallpox vaccines should be reasonably effective and a useful tool for blocking smallpox transmission once contact tracers identify those at risk.
This is what happened in 2003, the last time monkeypox gained a foothold in the United States, this time via pet rodents shipped to Texas from Ghana in West Africa. Forty-seven people fell ill, but a quick response from state and federal health officials — and a few doses of the smallpox vaccine — saved anyone from dying and quickly, albeit temporarily, eliminated the virus in the United States.
Monkeypox, which made the leap from apes or rodents to humans in the Democratic Republic of Congo in central Africa in 1970, breaks out here and there from time to time, usually in Africa. But it rarely infects more than a few thousand people a year and killed just 33 people in its most prolonged outbreak in the DRC between 1981 and 1986.
There are good reasons why monkeypox is not as contagious as COVID. Where COVID spreads via very fine droplets of saliva – the kind we all spit for feet in all directions every time we breathe, talk, laugh or cough – monkeypox prefers larger droplets that don’t not travel very far. It can also be spread by direct contact between the pathogen and an open wound, but this route of transmission is even less likely than these large, fast-falling droplets.
The key to containing monkeypox is to identify it quickly so that isolation, contact tracing and treatment can begin before the virus spreads too far. We were pretty good at it a generation ago. We’re even better at it now, thanks in large part to COVID. “Most of the world is much better prepared for monkeypox than it was two and a half years ago,” Paul Anantharajah Tambyah, president of the Asia Pacific Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infection in Singapore, told The Daily Beast.
“We need to figure out what’s going on, quickly.”
Testing is more sophisticated, not just for SARS-CoV-2 infections, but for a whole host of viral illnesses. “I’d like to think we’ve learned how to do mass testing more efficiently,” James said. “PCR testing is actually easy as long as we have the right reagents. We can also test several viruses at the same time.
We are also better at contact tracing. Investigating people’s movements and relationships to determine who they were in close contact with and when was a niche practice three years ago. Today, tens of thousands of health workers around the world are experienced in contact tracing.
The general public is also more alert. Of course, COVID-related restrictions on schools, business, and travel irritate a lot of people. Nobody likes to wear a mask. Small but stubborn minorities in some countries even refuse to take the free, safe and effective vaccines that offer strong protection against the worst consequences of a COVID infection.
But this recalcitrance belies the deep awareness that most people now have when it comes to viral illnesses. People are likely to notice if a friend, neighbor, or family member gets smallpox, and they’re likely to take it seriously. “The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the critical importance of staying ahead of infectious disease threats instead of constantly chasing them,” said Anne Rimoin, professor of epidemiology at UCLA Fielding School. of Public Health, to the Daily Beast. “The world is now familiar with the terms ‘case investigation’, ‘contact tracing’ and ‘genomic sequencing’.”
Perhaps most reassuringly, we already have a vaccine. With the COVID, we had to confine ourselves and wait a year before the first jabs were ready. But since the smallpox vaccine works on monkeypox, there’s no waiting.
If there’s any cause for concern in the recent spate of monkeypox cases, it’s that we don’t yet know exactly where and how it started. Identifying the origins of a viral spread obviously makes it possible to contain it. “We need to figure out what’s going on — quickly,” James Lawler, an infectious disease expert at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, told The Daily Beast.
“Having said that, in general we think monkeypox is much less lethal than smallpox, easier to control in terms of transmission, and amenable to vaccines and antivirals,” Lawler added.
All that to say, don’t worry. Unless a contact tracer knocks on the door (an unlikely proposition) or you notice strange blisters on your neighbor or yourself (even more unlikely), you don’t need to do what. whether differently. “The risk to the general public is very low,” Rimoin said.
Monkeypox makes one of its periodic returns. But it’s a virus that we’re really good at containing.
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