Monkeypox is officially a global health emergency.
The World Health Organization on Saturday raised the highest level of alarm over the virus, declaring it a public health emergency of international concern. Seventy-five countries and territories have so far reported more than 16,000 monkeypox cases, nearly five times the number reported to the WHO in June.
The Biden administration is weighing a similar declaration for the United States, where more than 2,500 monkeypox cases have been reported in 44 states, Washington and Puerto Rico.
Still, there’s a lot of confusion about the virus, especially with its rapid spread: Who’s at risk? How concerned should you be? What can you do to protect yourself, especially as so many people are still suffering from the Covid-19 pandemic? Should you get the vaccine?
Here’s what you need to know:
What are the symptoms of monkeypox?
The virus itself is not new: it has been circulating at historically low levels in parts of West and Central Africa. The current outbreak is unusual because monkeypox is completely absent in Europe and North America.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, infections typically last two to four weeks and begin with flu-like symptoms, including fever, muscle aches, headache, chills, fatigue and often swollen lymph nodes. Symptoms can range from red bumps and rashes on the skin, to pus-filled blisters that eventually dry up and fall off.
These rashes can appear anywhere on your body, including your face, hands, feet, genitals, and inside the mouth, the CDC says.
The severity of these symptoms can vary between people, says Dr. Cindy Prince, an epidemiologist at the University of Florida. He said some infected people may develop a widespread rash, while others may not get it at all.
Monkeypox is not a particularly deadly virus: only five deaths have been reported worldwide so far, and the CDC estimates that more than 99% of infected people survive. But getting an infection can be a painful experience, especially depending on where on your body you get the sores, says Prince.
How do I know if I have monkeypox?
According to Prince, monkeypox is common through prolonged skin-to-skin contact with an infected person. It can also be spread through bodily fluids, contaminated bedding, clothing, and other materials.
Technically, the virus can also be spread through respiratory droplets when you cough, sneeze or talk, Prince adds, but you have to be in close contact with someone who is contagious for several hours.
This means it is not considered a sexually transmitted disease. But according to the WHO, about 99% of cases in the US are related to male-to-male sex. According to the organization, most of the reported cases are in men, mostly gay, bisexual and men who have sex with other men. Transgender people and sex workers may also be at some risk, the WHO added.
If you have sex with multiple or anonymous partners, you’re at risk first, says Dr. Beth Thielen, professor of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Minnesota Medical School. He cautioned against stigmatizing gay and bisexual men, stressing that anyone, including women and children, can contract monkeypox by coming into contact with infected people or materials.
“I want people who are probably not engaging in these risky activities to know that they can still get it. It’s not a reason to think they’re not at risk,” Thielen says.
What can I do to protect myself?
The CDC recommends avoiding skin-to-skin contact with people who have a rash similar to monkeypox. You should also avoid sharing dishes or cups with such people and touching contaminated items such as bedding, clothes and towels until you have time to do laundry.
Use caution in public gatherings, including wearing skimpy clothing and close skin-to-skin contact in clubs, saunas, or sex clubs, and wash your hands frequently with soap, water, or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, the agency adds.
According to Thielen, sexually active people — especially those at risk — should consider changing their behavior temporarily. Prince recommends talking to your partner or partners about their risk of infection and whether they have been exposed to the virus.
If you develop symptoms or know you’ve been exposed to the disease, see your health care provider right away to determine if you should get tested, Prince says. In order to avoid infecting others, you should isolate yourself from home if you are actively infected.
Do I need to get the monkeypox vaccine?
The CDC recommends vaccination for people who are at high risk or have been exposed to the monkeypox virus. Vaccination 4 to 14 days after vaccination may not prevent disease, but it may help reduce symptoms, according to the agency.
If you don’t fall into either category, you probably don’t need to get vaccinated, at least not yet. “We don’t have the resources to vaccinate the entire population,” Thielen says. “We’re tailoring vaccination strategies to people who are at particular risk.”
There are currently two monkeypox vaccines available in the U.S. The first is Smallpox Vaccine: Previous data from Africa show that it is at least 85% effective in preventing monkeypox, according to the CDC.
The other is a vaccine called Jynneos, which is “better,” says Dr. Dean Blumberg, MD, Chief of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at University Davis Health.
According to Bloomberg, the shortage of Ginneos may help explain the vaccine shortage seen in the US: From Denmark, where Ginneos is manufactured: Last week, the Department of Health and Human Services said 786,000 extra doses were prepared. Shipping and handling in the US by the end of the month.
In the meantime, if you’re having trouble finding vaccines near you, check out clinics that treat or test for sexually transmitted infections, Thielen advises. Prince also recommends visiting clinics if appointments are unavailable and checking back frequently for new appointments.
“More vaccines are coming, so these appointments should be more open over the next month,” says Prince.
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