If you’re out and about in this modern world of ours at the moment, you might have heard whispers of the quite scary-sounding monkeypox, the latest zoonotic (meaning: transmitted from animals to humans) disease that is currently hitting the planet’s proverbial group chat. Truthfully, you may have a serious case of exotic-disease fatigue and not want to know a single bloody thing about this development – but in light of the World Health Organisation having just declared it a global health emergency, it feels like maybe we should get to know this new kid a little better.
What is this whole monkey business, anyway?
In truth, monkeypox is not new at all. Scientists first detected this infectious poxvirus in a colony of Asian monkeys in Copenhagen way back in 1958, with it presenting for the first time in a child in 1970 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Characterised by its pimple-like pustule rash in areas that are hard to see (eg; genitals, anal region and also across your face, arms and legs), fever, aches, headache, swollen lymph nodes, chills and exhaustion. This virus, whilst having a low fatality rate, is particularly dangerous for pregnant women, young children, older people, and those who are immunocompromised, with it bringing about secondary-infections that have proved fatal.
A younger, and less-lethal cousin of the smallpox virus, monkeypox has spread rapidly throughout Central and Western Africa since the ‘70s, with it now endemic in ten African countries. African scientists have been warning about the dangers of monkeypox for years off the back of the plight of these nations, but unfortunately, the West failed to ever give this disease much, if any, credence.
That is, until now.
Should I be worried?
Like with all things, panic doesn’t help anyone. Monkeypox is not as infectious as Covid-19, with it only transferred through close skin-to-skin physical contact with someone who is symptomatic. Unlike respiratory diseases, it has been found to be spread through sex, direct contact with someone who is symptomatic, or contaminated clothes, bedding or towels. As of July 2022, there have been 16,593 confirmed cases of monkeypox in 68 countries that have never reported having monkeypox before, and five deaths. In NSW alone, there have been 24 cases of monkeypox recorded since May 20, 2022. According to global health experts, 99 per cent of the monkeypox cases recorded outside of Africa have been men, with 98% of these cases being sexually-active gay and bisexual men. This virus has not been confirmed by scientists as a sexually-transmitted disease, however it is clear that the virus is currently disproportionately affecting this group.
Is anyone doing anything about it?
The WHO has declared a PHEIC (Public Health Emergency of International Concern), which is all about legally mobilising international collaboration to address the spread. This is the highest alarm the WHO can trigger for diseases (it’s happened with *you-know-what*, Ebola, and Polio, amongst others) and calls for better contact tracing, testing numbers and isolation measures so as to avoid having it take root across the rest of the world in the way it has in Africa.
Rich countries, like Australia, have raced to bolster supplies of the smallpox vaccine, which has been proven to be highly effective against the virus which contains the same variants. With smallpox totally eradicated in 1980, people stopped receiving the vaccine – a move that had dire consequences for people in Central and West Africa who were exposed to monkeypox, with them no longer protected against it. The same goes for us in the West, however some countries have continued to keep a small supply of the smallpox vaccine on-hand, just in case. Scientists in Africa have expressed concern that they will be left behind in the West’s frenzied vaccine roll-out, despite them having suffered the most with this disease for over four decades.
Now what do I do?
First of all, stay calm. Second, keep sanitised. Third, stay aware of any symptoms you may have, get tested, and isolate until said symptoms have gone away. And finally, simply keep up to date with health advice from authorities. If we’ve done it once, we can do it again folks.
All is not lost.