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Monkeypox Is Not the Next Pandemic

While we continue to protect ourselves against COVID-19, the chances of facing a monkeypox pandemic are very low.

We’re still not out of the woods of the COVID-19 pandemic, but many people are now concerned about monkeypox—a poxvirus that is now present in nearly every state in the U.S.

Monkeypox has existed for quite some time; it was discovered in 1958 in a few colonies of monkeys, and the first human case was recorded in 1970. Historically, the majority of infections have been limited to central and western African countries, but now, we’re starting to see cases pop up in countries that don’t usually report monkeypox, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain, Portugal, Canada and more.

Monkeypox vs. COVID

There are many differences between monkeypox and COVID, the key difference being that one is a poxvirus and the other is a respiratory virus. “COVID particles are very small and can be transmitted through the air, which is why it can spread so easily,” says Dr. Luis Sigal, vice chair of research at Thomas Jefferson University’s Sidney Kimmel Medical College. “The particles of poxviruses, like monkeypox, are much bigger and heavier, which means they can’t travel that far through the air.”

Dr. Sigal also explains that respiratory viruses like COVID penetrate through the respiratory tract and mainly affect the lungs, while poxviruses infect the body at a primary site and then spread through the body to other organs. “This is why we see lesions associated with poxviruses,” he says. “The virus itself will infect your body internally and spread through your bloodstream to  your skin.”

How does it spread?

“It’s not clear how this outbreak started; it’s something researchers are still investigating,” says Dr. Sigal. “The virus may have infected a human or group of humans from contact with a wild animal, but we are also monitoring the secondary spread—the spread from person to person.”

The most common way that people get infected with a poxvirus is through direct contact with lesions on an infected person. The virus can also enter your system if you have contact with bedding or furniture where an infected person may have shed the virus.

Some news sources have cited that this virus is likely to spread among men who have sex with other men, but Dr. Sigal confirms that anyone can be infected with monkeypox. “It doesn’t have anything to do with sexual orientation. If you come into close contact with someone who is infected, you’re at risk of becoming infected with the virus as well,” says Dr. Sigal.

Is this the next pandemic?

While the spread of monkeypox is concerning, Dr. Sigal doesn’t think it’s going to be the next pandemic. “Poxviruses act very differently than RNA viruses, like COVID-19, and they also mutate much slower—about 80-90% of poxviruses are identical,” he says. “The vaccines and antiviral treatments we have developed for other poxviruses may be at least partially effective against monkeypox. At the very least, we are at a better starting point because we already have vaccines and treatment methods. When COVID started, we didn’t have anything.”

In addition, the possibility of isolating those infected, and controlling the spread of the virus, is much better than with a respiratory virus.

How can we protect ourselves?

The cautions we take to protect ourselves from COVID can already help stop the spread of monkeypox among humans. “If you know someone who has a suspected case of monkeypox, it’s best to isolate from them, and don’t touch their beddings or belongings,” says Dr. Sigal. “And if you’re sick or think you have symptoms of monkeypox, stay home and call your doctor as soon as possible.”

People who are immunocompromised are at higher risk of becoming very ill with monkeypox. But, the good news is, many older people may already be protected from the virus. “Those who were born in the U.S. before 1972 who were vaccinated against smallpox have a better chance at fighting off the virus,” says Dr. Sigal.

For the most up-to-date information about monkeypox in the U.S., including signs and symptoms and how to protect yourself, please refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

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