With over 35,000 confirmed cases across some 92 countries, this outbreak of Monkeypox - first identified in April 2022 - is a global health issue. It's also a health issue that, so far, is primarily presenting in men who have sex with men.
To date, it's been established that a sexual encounter was often the point of transmission, but - given our past experience with Monkeypox - it was throught that this was through skin-to-skin contact or sweat or contact with bedclothes. However, new research suggests that this strain of the virus could be transmitting as a Sexually Transmitted Virus - similar to an STI.
The research has been published by researchers at the University of Southern California. It's not conclusive but does potentially help us to understand how this virus is impacting our community.
One of the key findings of this research is that Monkeypox DNA can be detected in bodily fluids such as semen.
While further studies are required, this latest research does seem to confirm that sexual encounters are where we are most at risk of being exposed to the virus. This seems to emphasise the importance of a comprehensive vaccination strategy that prioritises those most at risk.
What is Monkeypox?
The name “monkeypox” comes from the first documented cases of the illness, in 1958, when two outbreaks occurred in colonies of monkeys kept for research.
But monkeys aren’t major carriers. Instead, the virus is generally spread by squirrels, pouched rats, dormice or another rodent.
How do you catch Monkeypox?
The previous strains of Monkeypox that have been identified have been transmitted through contact with an animal that is carrying the virus - a scratch or a bite would be the most likely cause of someone acquiring Monkeypox. It could then spread to other people through coughing, sneezing, or contact with lesions.
The strain that is driving this current outbreak seems to be very effective at person-to-person transmission. It was clear that a sexual encounter was a highly effective way for the virus to spread - because of the amount of skin contact and body sweat - but evidence now also suggests that the virus could be transmitting as a form of STI.
Symptoms are likely to appear somewhere between 5-21 days after exposure to the virus.
The lesions from monkeypox are similar to those from a smallpox infection.
Health experts are speculating that the end of vaccination programs against Smallpox has left us vulnerable to a Monkeypox outbreak.
How dangerous is Monkeypox?
Monkeypox can be a nasty illness – it causes fever, body aches, enlarged lymph nodes and, eventually, painful, fluid-filled blisters on the face, hands and feet. One version of monkeypox is quite deadly and kills up to 10% of people infected. The version currently being detected from this cluster is milder. Its fatality rate is less than 1%. A case generally resolves in two to four weeks.
If you have it, you’ll probably need to isolate at home until you’ve recovered.
What should I do if I think I might have been exposed to Monkeypox?
If you notice any unusual rashes or lesions, and you think you might have been exposed to the virus through sexual contact, then contact your local sexual health service for advice.