The number of monkeypox cases in the United States has risen dramatically over the past few months, with more than 11,800 cases reported as of Aug. 15, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Earlier this month, the White House declared monkeypox a public health emergency.
W&M News recently talked with Dr. David Dafashy, medical director and staff physician at the Student Health Center, to learn more about monkeypox and what people can do to help prevent its spread.
Dafashy specializes in internal medicine and served on the advisory team that helped guide the university’s response to COVID-19.
For updates related to the university’s response to monkeypox, visit the Student Health Center website.
Q: What is monkeypox and what are some of the common signs and symptoms?
A: Monkeypox is an orthopox virus that is related to, but clinically very different from, the virus that caused the far more serious illness of smallpox. It is not related to chicken pox.
Usual symptoms may include the following: fever/chills, headache, fatigue, muscle aches/backache, swollen lymph nodes and cold-like symptoms (cough, congestion, sore throat)
The most specific symptom is the development of an itchy or painful pimple-like or blister-like rash that frequently appears in the genital areas, but can occur anywhere on the body. The rash generally occurs one to four days after any other cold-like symptoms develop. It is important to note that unlike smallpox, monkeypox is generally a mild, self-limiting illness in otherwise healthy individuals.
Q: How is it transmitted and what steps can people take to prevent catching it?
A: Monkeypox is spread most readily through direct skin-to-skin contact, but can also be spread by touching contaminated clothing/objects.
Respiratory secretions are another way to contract monkeypox, but it generally requires more prolonged contact or more secretion volume than might be the case with COVID-19.
Utilizing measures like maintaining good handwashing hygiene, washing clothing and avoiding direct skin contact and prolonged close contact with individuals known to have monkeypox can significantly diminish the likelihood of contracting the illness. People may also prevent spread by disinfecting hard surfaces like toilets and using hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
Q: What is the incubation period and how long does it last?
A: The incubation period is three to 17 days. The illness can last for two to four weeks, and the person is infectious until lesions resolve.
Q: Monkeypox was recently declared a national health emergency. What exactly does that mean? Will this potentially become as widespread as COVID? And how is W&M responding to this?
A: Health emergencies are generally declared when there is an imminent or present threat of an illness spreading widely enough to achieve potentially epidemic levels.
While it is too soon to know exactly how dramatically the number of cases will increase, there are many reasons why it is not likely that monkeypox infections will achieve the same numbers as COVID-19 infections.
First, it is not as readily transmissible with short periods of close contact, as the virus is not as easily aerosolized. Also, should it ever be recommended by the health authorities, a highly effective vaccine already exists for this virus and would not need to go through the same types of testing that the COVID vaccines required before making them available.
W&M is closely monitoring the situation and following the best evidence as provided by the CDC and local health authorities.
Q: Are there any common misunderstandings or myths about the disease?
A: Many people have not heard of monkeypox before and assume that it is a new/novel virus like COVID-19 was. In fact, monkeypox is well-described and has been prevalent in parts of the world for many years. In 2003, there was a limited outbreak of monkeypox in the U.S.
We know that the vaccine for smallpox is effective against monkeypox, but health officials are currently NOT recommending vaccination for the vast majority of people.
Q: What should someone do if they think they might have monkeypox?
A: Because monkeypox is generally a mild and self-limiting disease that usually requires no specific medical intervention, the most important thing is to prevent further spread, especially to higher-risk individuals by limiting your exposure to others.
If you have a suspicious rash or other symptoms suggestive of monkeypox, a visit to your health center for a proper diagnosis is advised. Diagnoses are made in collaboration with testing that is processed by our local Peninsula Health Department.
In most cases, only treatment of symptoms is necessary. Rarely, antivirals can be used as treatment for more severe disease or in higher-risk individuals.
Q: For students, what resources are available at the Student Health Center for both prevention and treatment?
A: Prevention is the best medicine, and students can protect themselves by continuing many of the good hygiene measures that they have been utilizing since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
If they feel that they have symptoms concerning for monkeypox, they are advised to make an appointment to determine if testing is warranted. There are treatment options for individuals with monkeypox, such as antiviral therapy, but it is not always necessary for milder cases.
Staff, University News & Media