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What do we need to know about monkeypox?

A Q&A with VCU Health’s chief of infectious diseases.

A composite image of the monkeypox virus Getty Images

Health officials around the world are keeping a careful eye on monkeypox, an infection that is similar to smallpox and most commonly found in Africa.


In recent days, the disease appears to be spreading among people who have not traveled to Africa, with new cases being reported in Europe, North America, Israel and Australia.

VCU Health News sat down with Gonzalo Bearman, M.D., chief of infectious diseases at VCU Health, to learn more about monkeypox and its risk to the general population.

What is monkeypox?

Monkeypox is a virus that is most commonly found in Africa. It is not typically found in the United States. It is similar to smallpox because it causes a disease that's like smallpox, however, it is important to note that the two are not the same.

The most common symptoms of monkeypox include fever, cough, swollen lymph nodes and a rash. The rash comes in stages, starting with red dots, and later, transitioning to blisters. Those blisters then become filled with pus. When they dry up, there can be scarring, depending on the degree of severity of the species.

How is monkeypox transmitted?

Transmission of monkeypox occurs when someone comes into contact with the virus from an animal, human or materials contaminated with the virus. The virus can enter the body through broken skin, mucous membranes or the respiratory tract.

This can happen in a couple of ways:

●      animal to human contact -- a bite, scratch or contact with bodily fluids

●      human to human contact -- respiratory droplets by way of exhaling, coughing, sneezing, speaking, singing or contact with bodily fluids

Is there a vaccine for monkeypox? And if not, could the smallpox vaccine alleviate some of the symptoms?

Yes, the smallpox vaccine could protect against monkeypox. We know of at least one case cited in Massachusetts. Smallpox is the only disease that's been eradicated in the history of mankind, and that was through vaccination. Smallpox vaccines still exist and they are available for emergency use.

How contagious is monkeypox?

While it’s not as contagious as COVID-19, it is still a public health concern. It’s important for the public to be aware of what’s going on so they can keep themselves and their families safe. But, to be clear, it's a very different virus than COVID-19. This has different clinical manifestations, it is transmitted in different ways, and it is also prevented and treated in different ways.

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