Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom have reported a few dozen cases among themselves. And now the United States. Massachusetts authorities detected the infection Tuesday night, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention quickly confirmed it.
But don’t be scared. The world has previously contained outbreaks of smallpox. And we are even better prepared for the virus now that we have three years of practice with the new coronavirus.
“I don’t care about anything that looks like an outbreak,” Irwin Redlener, the founding director of Columbia University’s National Disaster Preparedness Center, told The Daily Beast. I was using the epidemiological definition of outbreak, which is a sudden spread of an unusual disease, but in a small geographical area rather than globally.
A handful of cases of monkeypox in a handful of countries still do not qualify as an outbreak, by the standards of many scientists. Could the virus spread to more people in more countries? Yes. But don’t expect it to be something similar to the spread of COVID. “SARS-CoV is much more contagious than other infections,” Stephanie James, head of a viral testing lab at Regis University in Colorado, told The Daily Beast.
Slower spread means authorities have more time to confirm cases, isolate infected people, and track their recent contact with others. There is no specific smallpox vaccine, but the virus is similar to smallpox, so smallpox vaccines should be reasonably effective, and a useful tool for blocking smallpox transmission once contacts have identified people who are at risk.
This is what happened in 2003, the last time the monkey’s smallpox hit a high point in the United States, this time using pet rodents sent to Texas from Ghana to West Africa. Forty-seven people became ill, but a quick response from state and federal health officials, and a few doses of smallpox vaccine, prevented anyone from dying and quickly, albeit temporarily, wiped out the virus in the United States.
Monkeypox, which first made the jump from monkeys or rodents to the population of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Central Africa in 1970, erupts here and there from time to time, usually in Africa. . But it rarely infects more than a couple thousand people a year and only killed 33 people during its longest outbreak in the DRC between 1981 and 1986.
There are good reasons why monkeypox is not as contagious as COVID. Where COVID spreads through very thin drops of spit, the kind we all vomit for meters in all directions every time we breathe, talk, laugh, or cough, the monkey’s smallpox prefers larger drops that don’t travel much. far. It can also be spread by direct contact between the pathogen and an open wound, but this route of transmission is even less likely than these large, rapidly falling drops.
The key to containing monkeypox is to identify it quickly so that isolation, contact tracking, and treatment can begin before the virus spreads too far. A generation ago we were very good at this. Now we do it even better, thanks in large part to COVID. “Most of the world is much better prepared for monkeypox than two and a half years ago,” Paul Anantharajah Tambyah, president of the Asia Pacific Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infection in Singapore, told The Daily Beast.
“We need to figure out what’s going on, fast.”
The tests are more sophisticated, not just for SARS-CoV-2 infections, but for a range of viral diseases. “I’d like to think we’ve learned to do mass testing more efficiently,” James said. “PCR testing is really easy as long as we have the right reagents. We can also test several viruses at the same time.”
We are also better at tracking contacts. Investigate people’s movements and relationships to find out who they have been in close contact with and when, three years ago, it was a niche practice. Today, tens of thousands of healthcare workers around the world have experience with contact tracking.
The general public is also more alert. Of course, VOCID-related restrictions on schools, business, and travel irritate many people. Nobody likes to wear a mask. Small but stubborn minorities in some countries even refuse to take free, safe, and effective vaccines that offer strong protection against the worst outcomes of a COVID infection.
But this recalcitrance belies the deep awareness that most people now have when it comes to viral illnesses. People will probably notice if a friend, neighbor, or family member has smallpox, and they will probably take it seriously. “The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the critical importance of staying ahead of threats from infectious diseases rather than constantly pursuing them,” said Anne Rimoin, a professor of epidemiology at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, and The Daily Beast. “The world is now familiar with the terms ‘case investigation’, ‘contact tracing’ and ‘genomic sequencing’.
Perhaps the most reassuring thing is that we already have a vaccine. With COVID, we had to close and wait a year before the first hits were ready. But since the smallpox vaccine works with the smallpox vaccine, you don’t have to wait.
If there’s one cause for concern in the recent wave of monkeypox cases, it’s that we still don’t know exactly where and how it started. Identifying the origins of a viral spread obviously helps to contain it. “We need to find out what’s going on, quickly,” James Lawler, an infectious disease expert at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, told The Daily Beast.
“That said, we generally think monkeypox is much less lethal than smallpox, easier to control in terms of transmission, and susceptible to vaccines and antivirals,” Lawler added.
All this to say, don’t worry. Unless a contact tracker touches (an unlikely proposal) or you notice strange blisters on your neighbor or yourself (even more unlikely), you don’t need to do anything different. “The risk to the general public is very low,” Rimoin said.
Monkeypox is making one of its regular returns. But this is a virus that we are very good at containing.