Should you be concerned about monkeypox? University of Michigan epidemiologist weighs in

FILE - This 2003 electron microscope image made available by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows mature, oval-shaped monkeypox virions, left, and spherical immature virions, right, obtained from a sample of human skin associated with the 2003 prairie dog outbreak. A leading doctor who chairs a World Health Organization expert group described the unprecedented outbreak of the rare disease monkeypox in developed countries as "a random event" that might be explained by risky sexual behavior at two recent mass events in Europe. (Cynthia S. Goldsmith, Russell Regner/CDC via AP, File) (Uncredited, CDC)

ANN ARBOR – As cases of monkeypox continue to crop up around the world, many are wondering: How concerned should we be about the disease?

The virus -- characterized by pus-filled blisters on the body -- has been detected in Australia, Canada, the United States and in some European countries. According to the World Health Organization, more than 250 cases have been confirmed in 16 countries.

Infectious disease epidemiologist and associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, Aubree Gordon, said monkeypox doesn’t pose as severe a threat as COVID-19 to people, largely due to how it spreads and an existing vaccine.

Read: Expert: Monkeypox likely spread by sex at 2 raves in Europe

Gordon is the director of U-M’s Michigan Center for Infectious Disease Threats, is an investigator with the Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research and Response with the National Institutes of Health and currently leads studies on the transmission of and immunity from SARS-CoV-2.

Below is a Q&A the university released with Gordon on the topic:

How concerned should we be about monkeypox?

We’ve seen a number of cases of monkeypox pop up in multiple countries, and that is concerning. It’s definitely something that has to be monitored at this point. The good news about monkeypox is that it isn’t as transmissible as something like SARS-CoV-2. So it should be able to be controlled. We do have existing vaccines that work against monkeypox, however, currently only one is licensed for that purpose in the U.S.

The emergence of something like monkeypox, which we’ve had cases pop up before, is something that’s probably going to happen more and more often in the future. One of the reasons is that monkeypox is actually related to smallpox. If you’re over a certain age, you probably have a scar from getting a smallpox vaccine, which prevented smallpox and was responsible for us being able to eradicate smallpox, but it also prevented cases of monkeypox.

Now we have a large population that hasn’t gotten the smallpox vaccine because the virus was eradicated and because there are risks that come with smallpox vaccination. So, people are becoming susceptible or are susceptible to these other pox viruses, including monkeypox.

How is it transmitted?

Human-to-human transmission of monkeypox has been relatively uncommon. However, when it does occur, Monkeypox is typically transmitted through close contact, either through large droplets or through direct contact with another person. Basically, you need to have contact with their saliva or pus from lesions.

Read: Monkeypox cases in the US: What are the symptoms and how does it spread? What to know

One of the unique features of this particular outbreak is that it does appear that, at least in some people, it is probably being transmitted through sexual contact. There’s a lot of work going on right now to figure out how it’s being transmitted and what specific groups of people are at risk and who may have already been exposed to the virus.

Do you think we’ll see a wide spread of this virus?

Because it doesn’t transmit that easily, because we have a vaccine that works for it and because it is relatively easy to recognize cases due to the characteristic skin lesions, it should be a lot easier to control it.

That’s one of the things that you look at for diseases in general, like when we think about diseases and you think about whether you can eradicate or eliminate. Eradicate is getting rid of it completely. Smallpox is an example of something that we’ve eradicated; there haven’t been any human cases since the 1970s. Eliminate is if you get rid of it in an area or region of the world but it may still be around in other areas of the world.

Smallpox was a huge success, and there are many different reasons why we were able to eradicate it. Smallpox is incredibly transmissible but people are not typically contagious until they have symptoms. It’s not like SARS-CoV-2 where you are highly infectious before you get symptoms or if you never develop symptoms. And it is very easy to identify smallpox, unlike respiratory illnesses like SARS-CoV-2. And there was a very good vaccine.

These things together, made it possible to control smallpox, eventually leading to its eradication. Since monkeypox also has these same features and is less transmissible between people, we should be able to control it as well.


About the Author:

Meredith has worked for WDIV since August 2017 and was voted one of Washtenaw County's best journalists in 2019 by eCurrent's readers. She covers the community of Ann Arbor and has a Master's degree in International Broadcast Journalism from City University London, UK.