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As monkeypox continues to spread, the U.S. needs to learn lessons from other outbreaks, and fast.
This viral disease, which is rarely fatal and in the same family as smallpox, has infected more than 3,000 people in the U.S. recently. Monkeypox is not new and was first identified decades ago. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the illness typically occurs in central and western Africa. More than 18,000 cases have been reported globally in the current outbreak, with more than 70 countries reporting cases, according to the BBC.
The World Health Organization declared the global monkeypox spread a public health emergency on Saturday. The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the state’s first monkeypox case late last week in York County.
“While this is the first case of monkeypox identified in Maine, Maine CDC has been preparing for a case for several weeks given the international outbreak,” Maine CDC Director Nirav Shah said in a Friday press release. “This disease is rare and the risk to the general public remains low. Maine CDC is working with the individual to identify close contacts and provide them access to vaccination.”
Monkeypox symptoms include rashes, sores and a flu-like illness. The monkeypox virus is transmitted by close contact with a symptomatic patient. According to the Maine CDC, this includes physical, skin-to-skin contact, such as sex. The disease can be painful and disfiguring, and lead to hospitalization in serious cases. There have been no monkeypox deaths reported in the U.S. as part of this outbreak.
It is important to emphasize that this disease is not spread solely through sexual activity, even as research indicates that cases so far likely have been overwhelmingly linked to close sexual contact between men. Non-sexual physical contact can also spread the disease, as can contact with items such as linens that have touched the rash or bodily fluids of an infected person. According to the U.S. CDC, “It also can be spread by respiratory secretions during prolonged, face-to-face contact.”
Given these other possible ways for the virus to spread, concerns about monkeypox as the school year approaches are not unfounded. Two children in the U.S. were recently diagnosed with the disease.
This stage in the outbreak didn’t get here overnight. People had already been raising alarms. As the Biden administration says it is ramping up efforts and considering its own emergency declaration, epidemiologists are warning that this moment is critical in the effort to combat this spread.
“We’re losing daylight,” Anne Rimoin, an epidemiologist at the University of California Los Angeles who has studied monkeypox for decades, told NPR. “Every day that we aren’t continuing to push forward on all fronts, the less likely it is that we will be able to contain it.”
We have an ongoing reminder from the COVID-19 pandemic about the importance of testing, treatment and vaccine resources to help minimize the spread and severity of this new outbreak. And if there is good news here, it is that vaccines used for both monkeypox and smallpox already exist (the Maine Department of Health and Human services said last week the state has enough doses to vaccinate 311 people, for example). According to the U.S. CDC, monkeypox vaccines can be administered before or soon after an exposure.
Still, some experts are warning that more must be done, and done quickly, to deploy the necessary resources.
“We are way behind in a lot of aspects, including rapid testing and access to treatment for those patients who might need treatment,” Dr. Preeti Malani, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Michigan, told NPR.
That sounds an awful lot like where we’ve been with testing and treatment at various stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it must change in the monkeypox response. Policymakers need to learn the obvious lessons from other outbreaks.
Policymakers and the general public must also learn from mistakes made in the response to AIDS. Stigma cannot delay the response to this outbreak or lull people into a false sense of security that this only impacts certain members of the population.
Awareness across the country will be critical in understanding monkeypox, preventing infections and treating it when infections do occur.
“Ultimately, we cannot vaccinate and treat our way out of monkeypox,” Malani, the infectious disease specialist in Michigan, said. “Prevention is critical.”
Resources and planning, not panic, will be key in managing this newest outbreak.