What is monkeypox?
Monkeypox is a rare disease caused by a virus. It’s characterized by a fever, swollen lymph nodes, and a widespread rash. The rash causes many lesions on the face and extremities. Most cases of monkeypox occur in central and western Africa. Monkeypox in the United States is rare, though there have been a few confirmed cases in 2021.
Monkeypox is also a zoonotic disease. This means it can be transmitted from animals to humans, and vice versa. It can also be transmitted from one human to another. Read on to learn about the causes, symptoms, and diagnosis of monkeypox. This article will also explain how monkeypox spreads and how it can be treated.
What causes monkeypox?
Monkeypox is caused by the monkeypox virus. The virus is part of the orthopoxvirus genus, which includes the virus that causes smallpox. Scientists first identified the disease in 1958. There were two outbreaks among monkeys used for research. That’s why the condition is called monkeypox. The first case of monkeypox in a human happened in 1970 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The symptoms of monkeypox are similar to those of smallpox. But monkeypox symptoms are typically milder. After you contract the monkeypox virus, it can take 5 to 21 days for the first symptoms to appear. It takes 7 to 14 days in many cases.
The early symptoms include:
- fever, which is commonly the first symptom
- muscle aches
- swollen lymph nodes, also known as lymphadenopathy
After the fever develops, a rash usually appears 1 to 3 days later. The rash typically affects the:
- face, which is the most common site
- palms of the hands
- soles of the feet
- eyes, including the conjunctivae and cornea
The rash consists of lesions that evolve in the following order:
- macules, or flat discoloured lesions
- papules, or slightly raised lesions
- vesicles, or bumps with clear fluid
- pustules, or bumps with yellowish fluid
After the lesions dry and scab over, they fall off. The symptoms of monkeypox generally last 2 to 4 weeks and go away without treatment.
Potential complications from having monkeypox
Possible complications of monkeypox include:
- inflammation of brain tissue, also known as encephalitis
- infection of the cornea, the clear outer layer of the eye
- secondary infections
An infection in the cornea may lead to vision loss.
Also, in severe cases, the lesions might form together and cause the skin to fall off in large pieces.
Where is monkeypox found?
The monkeypox virus is mainly active in tropical, rural parts of central and western Africa. Since 1970, it has occurred in the following countries:
- Central African Republic
- Cote d’Ivoire
- Democratic Republic of the Congo
- Republic of the Congo
- Sierra Leone
- South Sudan
Most of the infections have occurred in rural areas of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
If you live or are traveling to any of these countries, be sure to take safety precautions. Avoid interacting with animals that might be infected with monkeypox. Likewise, avoid interacting with people who may have been exposed to the virus.
How does monkeypox spread?
Monkeypox spreads through direct contact with the following substances of animals or humans with the infection:
- bodily fluids
- skin or mucous lesions
- respiratory droplets, for human-to-human contact
These substances can enter the body via breathing, mucous membranes, or broken skin. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that person-to-person spread is very low. When it does occur, it’s usually through prolonged face-to-face contact and large respiratory droplets. This might happen if you’re within a 6-foot radius with someone who has it for 3 hours or longer.
Transmission can also happen through:
- bites and scratches from infected animals
- eating the meat of an infected animal
- contact with a contaminated item, like bedding
The main disease carrier is unknown. It’s thought that African rodents are involved.
Is monkeypox deadly?
According to the CDC, 1 in every 10 cases of monkeypox will result in death.
Severe cases are more likely to cause death. Risk factors for severe cases include:
- being younger
- having prolonged exposure to the virus
- having poor overall health
- developing complications
How is monkeypox treated?
There’s currently no treatment for monkeypox. However, monkeypox is self-limiting, which means it can get better without treatment.
Some medications can be used to control an outbreak and prevent the disease from spreading. They include:
- vaccinia vaccine (smallpox vaccine)
- vaccinia immune globulin (VIG)
- antiviral medication (in animals)
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the smallpox vaccine is approximately 85% effective in preventing the development of monkeypox. If you received the smallpox vaccine as a child and contract the monkeypox virus, your symptoms may be mild.
In 2019, a vaccine was approved to prevent both smallpox and monkeypox. But it’s still not widely available to the public.
Who should be screened for monkeypox and how is it diagnosed?
It’s important to get screened for monkeypox if you:
- live with people who have developed monkeypox
- workaround people who have monkeypox
- have travelled to a country where monkeypox is more common
- have interacted with imported animals
- received a bite or scratch from infected animals
- ate partially cooked meat or other products of infected animals
- visit or live near a tropical rainforest
Doctors diagnose monkeypox using several methods:
- Medical history. This includes your travel history, which can help your doctor determine your risk.
- Lab tests. This involves testing the fluid from lesions or dry scabs. These samples can be checked for the virus using a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test.
- Biopsy. A biopsy involves removing a piece of skin tissue and testing it for the virus.
Blood tests are not usually recommended. That’s because the monkeypox virus stays in the blood for a short time. Therefore, it’s not an accurate test for diagnosing monkeypox.
Monkeypox is a rare viral disease. It’s a zoonotic condition, which means it spread from animals to humans. It can also spread between two humans.
The first symptoms include fever, muscle aches, and swollen lymph nodes. As the disease progresses, it causes a rash on the face and extremities. The rash consists of lesions that turn into fluid-filled blisters, which then dry up and fall off. The rash typically starts off on the face and then progresses downward, usually to the arms and legs. However, it can occur in other parts of the body as well.
Monkeypox mainly occurs in tropical areas of central and western Africa. If you have recently travelled to these regions, it’s important to get screened for monkeypox.
Medically reviewed by Nuwan Gunawardhana, MD
Written by Kirsten Nunez on April 19, 2022
Source: Healthline Media
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