Freaking Out About Monkeypox? Here’s What You Need To Know About The Virus

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It seems nature is pretty content at throwing deadly plagues at us, as Europe reports a rise of monkeypox across the continent and Australia reports two cases from travellers returning home— something that’s never happened before.

But if you’re freaking out about monkeypox or spiralling over whether you should be freaking out about monkeypox, here’s everything you need to know about the virus.

What Is Monkeypox?

Dr Fasséli Coulibaly is an associate professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Monash University and spoke to Junkee about all things monkeypox.

“So it’s a virus. It’s actually the first virus we used for making vaccines. Not monkeypox itself, but the viral family that monkeypox belongs to is called the poxviruses. So we’ve known about these viruses for a long time.”

Dr Coulibaly explained that symptoms of monkeypox are initially chills, headaches and fevers before progressing into nasty skin lesions that form across the body.

The virus historically has a low transmission rate for human hosts, and usually spreads via infected animals. That’s because monkeypox is unlike COVID or the influenza virus in that it doesn’t mutate as quickly with new strains.

“The coronavirus is more, I guess, a tiger attacking and moving very quickly and swiftly, and we need to adapt. Whereas the poxvirus is pretty much its optimum…it’s quite predictable,” said Dr Coulibaly.

How Does Monkeypox Spread?

For monkeypox to spread you have to be within skin to skin or close contact with someone or an animal infected.

Dr Coulibaly pointed out that it can also be transmitted by droplets and if you share bedding or clothes.

“So the difference with COVID, I guess [is that] it’s not airborne, it doesn’t transmit readily to respiratory contacts, which is great. This is actually probably the most important aspect,” he explained.

In 1980 the World Health Organisation declared smallpox the first and so far only viral disease to be eradicated in the world. Smallpox is in the same family as monkeypox.

Dr Coulibaly recalled how dreadful of a disease small smallpox was and how it really was one of the worst that humanity had to face. Monkeypox, on the other hand, is not the same at all.

“It’s much milder. It’s very rarely fatal, so no need to panic. It doesn’t transmit as well and it’s quite hard to catch it, and the symptoms are quite recognisable, so you can quite clearly quite easily know if you are infected and act accordingly,” he told Junkee.

Because scientists and doctors were able to end smallpox in the 80s, the world didn’t really have a reason to keep vaccinating against it. Dr Coulibaly explained that since smallpox vaccines aren’t mandatory anymore — which was cross protecting them against monkeypox — they aren’t as protected from monkeypox now.

“There was a vision that this could come at some point as being a problem. So we’ve continued, my lab and others around the world to work on these viruses, even if there were not an immediate threat. We have antiviral drugs available. We pretty much have a vaccine. We are in a very good place compared to where we started safe with COVID.”

How Has It Spread Outside of Africa?

Monkeypox’s spread outside of Central and Western Africa —where it’s endemic — has still shocked scientists, as the virus has rarely been recorded spreading between borders.

Since early May, at least 120 cases have been recorded outside of Africa, and for us here in Sydney those cases have caused some concern.

Why it is popping up now is really not clear for experts yet, Dr Coulibaly told me. He did say however, that there was no reason to blame anyone regardless.

“Finding where and how it spreads is important for public health, but yes, certainly it shouldn’t be trying to find blame here.”

He also said that it’s most likely that the virus just travelled from a country in Africa, and perhaps was important be animals.

“This is how we’ve seen it in the past, where there were rodents that were imported which then transmitted the disease to another animal in the US and then two humans. So, it’s a little bit of a chain of events and accidents which lead to that,” he explained.

The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS —UNAIDS — has condemned reporting over monkeypox for being racist and homophobic, after a “significant” portion of new monkeypox cases have been detected in men who identify as gay or bi-sexual.

<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”>Lessons from the AIDS response show that stigma and blame directed at certain groups of people can rapidly undermine outbreak response.<br><br>We urge media, governments, and communities to respond with a rights-based, evidence-based approach to ensure <a href=”;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#ZeroDiscrimination</a>.</p>&mdash; UNAIDS (@UNAIDS) <a href=””>May 23, 2022</a></blockquote> <script async src=”” charset=”utf-8″></script>

The most important things for us to do now is to let the experts focus on what’s causing the problem, to not panic and see a doctor if monkeypox is of concern.