Doug Bonderud

Nov 14th 2022

What Is Monkeypox? A Viral Primer on This (Not So) New Virus


What is monkeypox? This (not so) new virus is making headlines, and the last few years have put us on high alert when a virus is in the news. Here’s what you need to know about the origins, outcomes and potential impacts of monkeypox.

No Monkeying Around

Despite the name, there’s no guarantee that monkeypox actually came from monkeys. While scientists first discovered the disease in 1958 when working with two colonies of monkeys kept for research, the CDC says the origin point of the illness remains unknown.

According to Wired, the disease is often found in rodents including squirrels, rats and dormice. The name “monkeypox” comes from the fact that monkeys were the first viral vector detected by humans. This disease is typically found in the rainforests of Central and Western Africa, but may occasionally appear outside this area when infected humans travel to other locations.

Common Symptoms of Monkeypox

The World Health Organization (WHO) lists several common symptoms of monkeypox, including:

  • Fever
  • Intense headache
  • Muscle aches
  • Back pain
  • Low energy
  • Rashes

The disease typically has two stages. In the first, patients present with flu-like symptoms including fever, aches and exhaustion, which often include enlarged lymph nodes as their body ramps up the production of protective cells. Next is the development of a rash or “pox,” which often starts on the face and then spreads to the hands, legs, feet and trunk. Lesions caused by the pox may be flat or slightly raised and contain clear or yellowish fluid; Over time, they crust over, dry up and fall off.

Symptoms of monkeypox generally last two to four weeks and, in most cases, go away without treatment. Pinpointing the illness can be challenging, however — just because you have a rash, it doesn’t mean you have monkeypox, and not all people present with the same symptoms. Put simply? If you’re worried you may have been exposed to monkeypox, talk to your doctor.

How Monkeypox Moves Through Populations

The first human case of monkeypox was detected in 1970. Before 2022, all cases detected were linked to international travelers who contracted the disease in their country of origin.

Infection from carrier animals can occur via physical contact such as bites or scratches, or if humans consume the infected animal’s meat or blood. Thorough cooking of any animal parts before eating, however, can kill the virus and eliminate the risk.

People with monkeypox are not contagious until they start showing symptoms, and unlike another virus that’s been on everyone’s mind lately, the transmission of monkeypox is more challenging. Common transmission methods include direct contact with pus or sores on an infected person, sharing clothing, or prolonged exposure to the infected person and their respiratory droplets. With the new uptick of monkeypox cases, sexual contact also appears to be a method of transmission.

The Changing Viral Landscape

The CDC is tracking new monkeypox cases across the country. As of July 2022, more populous states such as California and New York reported 136 and 153 total infections, respectively, while many other states have less than 10 confirmed cases or none at all.

Despite the relatively low transmission rate of the virus, there’s still concern about its movement outside of typical infection areas. Thankfully, multiple vaccines are available to help treat monkeypox, and more is known about its genome than more recent virus outbreaks.

So what is monkeypox, and should we be worried? While this not-quite new virus is making a move through more populations, options exist to help detect, mitigate and treat the disease.

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