A physician in PPE works in a hospital.Share on Pinterest
Getty Images
  • There is currently an outbreak of monkeypox in 20 countries.
  • The U.S. previously had an outbreak of monkeypox in 2003 that affected 47 people.
  • The outbreak was contained via vaccines and public health measures.

The recent outbreak of the monkeypox virus has spread to 20 countries, according to the World Health Organization. While the world is still reeling from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, there are questions about how worried we should be about this new virus outbreak.

Fortunately, the cases of monkeypox around the world appear to be non-life threatening, as well as all containable.

The WHO said on Monday that there is a “moderate” risk that monkeypox could spread widely across the globe.

In the U.S., officials are working to stop the spread of disease. The country has been through a monkeypox outbreak nearly 20 years ago that was effectively contained.

Monkeypox is an infection caused by a virus that is in the same family as the smallpox virus. But monkeypox is far less severe than smallpox, though it causes a similar illness that involves flu-like symptoms and a rash accompanied by lesions.

Fortunately the mortality rate is low, between 1 to 10 percent, and is particularly low with the current strain that has most recently appeared on the scene.

In 2003 the United States saw 47 confirmed and probable cases of monkeypox across six states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (CDC) Those who developed monkeypox contracted it after having contact with prairie dogs that were being sold as pets.

The 2003 outbreak in the U.S. was the first time human monkeypox was reported outside of the African continent. There were no deaths and no reported human-to-human transmission.

“We think monkeypox lives in small rodents of various kinds. There’s an international trade in exotic pets and some of these small rodents were imported into the U.S., where there are people who sell exotic pets,” said Dr. William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine in the Department of Health Policy as well as professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “Rodents from Africa had close contact with prairie dogs, which were also being sold as pets. Those prairie dogs gave it to some people in the U.S.”.

There were several factors that contributed to the containment of monkeypox in 2003. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the public health departments across the states joined forces for a response that included lab testing, epidemiological investigation, and a treatment guideline for those with the disease.

The efforts also resulted in deployment of smallpox vaccines and treatments, as well as the embargo and banning of importation of certain species of rodents into the United States.

Unlike the previous outbreak, which was spread from animal to human, this outbreak is spreading from human to human, which is why it is a little more complicated to contain the spread.

Fortunately, monkeypox is often a mild infection in most people, and goes away within a few weeks. That said, monkeypox does respond to certain vaccines, which can be used to control the outbreaks. Smallpox vaccines have been shown to be effective in preventing monkeypox, as well as treating it if administered very quickly after exposure.

Even though the world eradicated smallpox in 1980, many countries do keep stocks of the vaccine in the case of emergencies. The smallpox vaccine can be up to 85 percent effective in stopping monkeypox infection.

“Some of the previous interventions are not relevant, but we will still need a concerted effort on the part of the CDC, local health departments, and healthcare providers in order to recognize any new cases and implement measures for containment of spread,” said Dr. Brandi Manning, an infectious diseases physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

Schaffner said to use a vaccine effectively, public health officials could make sure people exposed to monkeypox get access to the vaccine.

“I think the average person should be interested in this fascinating story. It shows public health very much at work and reinforces again that we are in a very small world. You can’t put up walls to keep these sorts of viruses out. We need to keep our strength in the public health structure,” Schaffner added. “We thought we were beyond all of these infections, and we are not. We have to build up and maintain our public health structure.”