What is monkeypox
and is it a cause for concern?

 25 May 2022

Monkeypox is a type of viral infection typically found in west and central Africa, near tropical rainforests. It was first discovered in monkeys in a Danish research laboratory in 1958, hence the name “monkeypox”. The first human case recorded was in a child in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1970.

Monkeypox is similar to smallpox but less severe and less infectious. There are two forms of the virus -  a milder west African strain, and a more severe central African strain.

Health authorities in Europe, the U.S. and Australia are investigating a recent outbreak of monkeypox cases. The current international outbreak appears to involve the west African strain, according to health experts. 

According to the World Health Organisation, the risk to the general public is low at this time. Therefore the likelihood of widespread transmission is exceedingly low, and most people fully recover in two to four weeks. However, monkeypox can be severe in children, pregnant women or people whose immune systems are compromised due to illness or specific treatments.

The symptoms of monkeypox are similar to but milder than the symptoms of smallpox, with the main difference being that monkeypox causes lymph nodes to swell (lymphadenopathy) while smallpox does not.

The defining symptom of monkeypox is a distinctive itchy rash that later turns to blisters. The rash, which can be very itchy or painful, changes and goes through a number of different stages before finally forming a scab, which later falls off. The lesions can cause scarring.

The rash, often beginning on the face, spreads to other parts of the body, mainly the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. It usually appears two to four days after the other symptoms.

The early signs of monkeypox include flu-like symptoms such as:

  • Fever
  • Chill
  • Headaches
  • Backache
  • Muscle aches
  • Fatigue
  • Swollen lymph nodes

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the incubation period (time from infection to symptoms) for monkeypox is usually 7−14 days but can range from 5−21 days.

According to the World Health Organisation, monkeypox does not spread easily between people and experts say the threat is not comparable to the coronavirus pandemic. It is usually spread through close contact with an infected person or animal via large respiratory droplets or by skin-to-skin contact.

It can also be spread indirectly through contact with contaminated clothing or bedding used by someone with the rash. It has not previously been described as a sexually transmitted infection, but it can be passed on by direct contact during sex.

Currently, there is no proven treatment for the monkeypox virus, but it usually goes away on its own. Anti-viral drugs used to treat smallpox can be used to treat anyone who becomes severely ill with monkeypox. People who suspect they have monkeypox should isolate and seek medical care.

Scientific studies are now underway to assess the feasibility of vaccination for the prevention and control of monkeypox, according to the World Health Organisation. Some countries have, or are developing, policies to offer vaccines to people who may be at risk such as laboratory personnel, rapid response teams and healthcare workers.