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What Exactly Is Monkeypox – And Should You Be Worried?

The monkeypox rash. Wikimedia Commons 

If you are a UK resident and have read certain headlines over the past few weeks, you might be wondering – What the hell is monkeypox? And should I be worried?

That is because three people in the UK have been admitted to hospital with the virus in the last month alone. Two contracted the disease in Nigeria (where there is currently an outbreak) in completely unrelated but coincidental cases. The third is a healthcare worker who helped care for one patient at Blackpool Victoria Hospital. They are all being looked after by tropical disease specialists. 


First thing's first – don't worry. British medical experts have confirmed that these cases aren't about to trigger a national outbreak and Public Health England has said the general public is not at risk. 

"The fact that only one of the 50 contacts of the initial monkeypox-infected patient has been infected shows how poorly infectious the virus is," Jonathan Ball, a professor of molecular virology at the University of Nottingham, UK, told BBC News.

So now that's settled, what is monkeypox?

It's caused by the monkeypox virus, a less severe relative of the smallpox virus, which (shocker) was first identified in monkeys. It can also be caught from infected rats, squirrels, and other rodents, which are sometimes eaten as bushmeat, as well as contaminated objects.


There are two main strains of monkeypox (West African and Central African) and while there have been sporadic outbreaks across 10 African countries since the 70s, it rarely crops up outside the continent. This is the first time it has been reported in the UK.

Symptoms may include fever, headache, and an itchy rash that will often appear on the face before spreading to other parts of the body. Like the chickenpox rash, it turns into blisters and then scabs before it falls off, sometimes leaving scars. The illness usually lasts between two and three weeks. 

The smallpox vaccine may be used to immunize those at risk – it is 85 percent effective, BBC News reports – but there are currently no treatments available for those who have already contracted the virus. Instead, they are advised to seek hospital attention in order to minimize the spread of the disease. 

In most cases, monkeypox is a mild sickness. However, there is a risk of death and somewhere between 1 and 10 percent of patients do die as a result, particularly if they are young. Children are the most at risk.


Fortunately, the virus has a really terrible infection rate and has particular difficulty spreading between people. That's not to say that it's not possible – it can be passed from person to person via bodily fluids and airborne droplets (if you get very, very close). These droplets rarely travel further than a meter (3.3 feet). 

Of course, any disease that passes from animal to human has the potential to cause a pandemic (see bird flu and swine flu as examples), particularly if it finds a way to be more deadly, more spreadable, or both.

Fortunately, the cases in the UK seem to be contained, though health officials are keeping a close eye on any friends, family, and medical professionals that the three patients have come into contact with in the last few weeks. Some staff at the hospital have also been offered the smallpox vaccine to minimize the spread of the virus. 


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