You’ve likely seen the headlines screaming about monkeypox across Europe and now in the U.S.
If the name doesn’t scare you, the symptoms sure will: a rash of painful lesions and blisters filled with fluid that appear on the patient’s skin and a fever.
Could this turn into another pandemic? Are hospitals going to be overrun with monkeypox patients? Should we all be freaking out and buying toilet paper? Grid spoke with infectious disease expert Amesh Adalja, an assistant professor at the John Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, about the virus and how concerned we should be. Spoiler alert: We’re going to be just fine.
Text has been edited for length and clarity.
If you get monkeypox (and it’s rare) you usually just need to rest at home
Most people [who get monkeypox] do OK with it. There have been deaths reported in Africa from it, but most of the cases that are importations into other countries don’t usually result in high levels of severity. Usually [people just require] supportive [home] care … most of them are not going to require hospitalization.
There’s not any specific treatment that we give. There are some antivirals that were developed for smallpox that would work on monkeypox, but they’re not routinely used because most of the cases are mild enough that they don’t necessarily have a benefit. Since most of the cases are mild, you might see treatment used on immunocompromised individuals or people that have severe disease.
It’s nothing like covid, and it’s not going to overwhelm our healthcare system
It’s totally different. I think there’s a tendency to view every infectious disease emergency post-covid as covid. That’s not a good way of looking at it because each virus has different biological characteristics. Monkeypox is a containable infection … and not able to spread in the manner of something that would overwhelm the healthcare system. So no, it’s not. It’s not even in the same category of a threat to the public as a highly inefficiently spreading respiratory virus like SARS-CoV-2 or influenza. Those are different categories, and you have to kind of respect the fact that viruses have different biological characteristics. They can’t all be thought of at the same threat level.
You’re not likely to catch it from your pet
Traditionally, monkeypox has been contracted by contact with infected animals, such as rodents in Africa and even during the  outbreak linked to imported African rodents to the U.S. [That doesn’t mean you’ll contract monkeypox from your pet rat!]
The mortality rate for monkeypox is very low
In some case theories from Africa, you might see anything between 1 and 10 percent. But I would not really take that number to be reflective of what the fatality rate would be, because those might be in resource-poor settings. There are two different strains of the virus, one more virulent than the other. The cases that we’re seeing now are from a less virulent strain, and we’re not even hearing about many people being hospitalized with monkeypox. And if you look to the U.S. outbreak in 2003, no one died and there were over 40 cases there. So I think the mortality rate is much lower than that.
The smallpox vaccine can be used to stop the spread of monkeypox
The thing about monkeypox is that since it’s so related to smallpox, the smallpox vaccine can be deployed to stop spread. And it transmits through close contact with people, often skin-to-skin contact, or close respiratory secretions of people that are very close together. But it’s not something that is very contagious outside of that setting, and it’s not contagious before people have symptoms. So that really delivered spread. And you can use the vaccine as prophylaxis, meaning when you have a case, you can find the context of that case and then vaccinate all those contacts and halt transmissions.
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.