Monkeypox: Here’s what you need to know 

Scientist removes cell growth medium from a 6–well plate in preparation for a plaque assay, which is a test that allows scientists to count how many flu virus particles (virions) are in a mixture. Original image sourced from US Government department: Public Health Image Library, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Under US law this image is copyright free, please credit the government department whenever you can”.

On June 23, the first monkeypox case was confirmed in South Africa. It was confirmed by the department of health in a 30-year-old man with no recent travel history. There are currently over 30 countries around the world with reported cases of monkeypox. Here is a little explainer on the virus. 

What is monkeypox?

It is a virus known as viral zoonosis. This means a virus that’s transmitted to humans from animals. It has symptoms similar to those found in smallpox patients in the past – although it is less severe. The virus is caused by the monkeypox virus which belongs to the orthopoxvirus genus of the Poxviridae family. There are two clades of monkeypox virus: the West African clade and the Congo Basin (Central African) clade. 

It is transmitted between people to another by close contact with lesions, body fluids, respiratory droplets and contaminated materials such as bedding. The incubation period of monkeypox is usually from six to 13 days but can range from five to 21 days. Anyone can catch the disease if they have been in contact with a symptomatic person. 

The reason why there has been a lot of attention on this current spread of the virus is because it’s been spreading and originated in countries that aren’t endemic to the virus. The reported cases have no established links to endemic care. 

What are the symptoms?

A person of any age might have the virus in a monkeypox non-endemic country if they have an unexplained acute rash. 

The symptoms as of March 15 2022 include 

  • Headache
  • Acute onset of fever (>38.5oC),
  • Lymphadenopathy (swollen lymph nodes)
  • Myalgia (muscle and body aches)
  • Back pain
  • Asthenia (profound weakness)

Like most other viruses, one of the initial symptoms is fever. The symptoms manifest in the person about seven to 14 days after exposure. This is in the form of a fever and other nonspecific symptoms. It then produces a rash with blisters that can last for a couple of weeks before usually clearing up. Other symptoms that were found previously were fever and muscle pains, followed by swollen glands, with lesions all at the same stage. However, these are not common to all outbreaks. Cases may be severe, especially in children, pregnant women or people with suppressed immune systems. 

A PCR test is used to test  and confirm for the virus. It’s the same test used for COVID-19, however the laboratory tests will look for the monkeypox virus. A person is usually seen as infectious uil all the blisters on the skin have healed.

The virus in South Africa

In South Africa, the first case was announced on June 23. Before that there was little interest in the virus. Even though Google searches for the virus increased in the last week of May, the interest quickly declined. However, there was plenty of misinformation going around already. 

Health news site Bhekisisa has compiled a useful podcast about monkeypox. 

A vaccine does exist for the virus. The smallpox jab provides 85% protection against monkeypox infection. In South Africa, the health authorities stopped giving the smallpox vaccine in the 1980s so only people of 42+ have that protection. The National Institute for Communicable Diseases said on May 25 they saw no need for mass vaccination, because they believe cases will not explode as they did in the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Where did the current strain first appear?

The first confirmed case was on May 6 in a person who has travel history to Nigeria, where the disease is endemic. However, it had been suggested the virus was already spreading in Europe in the previous months. As of June 24, there are over 400 cases reported worldwide in Europe, North and South America, Asia, Africa, and Australia.

Why is the WHO looking to rename the virus? 

The World Health Organisation is looking to rename the virus to avoid discrimination. The organisation said they were “working with partners and experts from around the world on changing the name of the monkeypox virus, its clades and the disease it causes”. This announcement came after scientists called for the urgent name change which they described as “inaccurate”, “discriminatory” and “stigmatising”. This is because since the current outbreak, there have been attempts to link it to West Africa and Nigeria. 

Besides the health concerns, there are also concerns the virus is being used to stigmatise gay men. Several cases of the virus has involved individuals who self-identify as men having sex with men. Therefore there has concern that the disease is being used to stigmatise gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men (MSM). However the health authorities and scientists have said that everyone who is not vaccinated is susceptible to the diseases. The virus can affect anyone. 

Despite assurances from within South Africa and worldwide that the virus does not oppose as much of a threat as the coronavirus, there is still reason for concern. 

Vox interviewed Dimie Ogoina, an infectious diseases physician at Niger Delta University in Bayelsa, Nigeria. Ogoina said: “If global action is not taken to better understand the virus and disease everywhere and to develop innovative countermeasures to address the challenge of monkeypox everywhere, there’s a serious risk”.

Featured image via Creative Commons