The headlines have been breathlessly warning of a new outbreak of the Monkeypox virus, and the WHO just declared it an international emergency. Are we really on the verge of yet another pandemic? Is monkeypox something you should be worried about? Or is it just clickbait? Let’s take a look.
A pox upon ye.
That’s right everyone, COVID-19 is so last season, the new hotness on the plague scene is Monkeypox.
So do you want to be on-trend with the latest and greatest disease outbreak in town, then stick around because we’ve got the ins and outs on Really? Another pandemic? Really?
Here We Go Again
Well, we had a good run. There were a few weeks there where it looked like Covid was finally starting to wane, or at least become manageable. Things started feeling kinda normal again. (a beat) I remember normal.
But no… We can’t have that can we?
Not only are there new variants, Covid cases are on the rise again, but now we got a whole new pandemic. Or do we?
Yeah, Monkeypox has been all over the news lately but is it really a concern, or is this just a new thing the news shows are using to get you to stick around for the next commercial break?
Cynicism aside, Monkeypox does exist. And it’s been popping up all over the place so let’s take a look and see if we can get to the bottom of this.
As of this recording, there are around 15,300 cases of monkeypox around the world. Now that doesn’t sound like a lot after what we’ve just been through with Covid but there’s a few things to keep in mind here.
First of all, that number is rising quickly. To give you an idea of how quickly, when my writer, Ryan, researched this video, his script said 5300 cases. So it’s 3 times higher now than it was when he submitted this script a couple weeks ago.
And it’s probably up quite a bit by the time you see this. I’ll put a link below that you can click to see where things are right now.
The other thing that’s notable is this map. Here you can see the most cases are in the US and Europe but you see these blue dots down here in Africa? That’s where Monkeypox has historically been seen. All this orange… That’s never really been seen before.
In fact, out of the 71 countries with monkeypox cases right now, 65 of them are seeing cases for the first time ever. So… yeah, this is a thing.
As for what’s happening in the US, again, at the time of recording this, New York has the most cases at 581, followed by California at 365, and then Illinois, Florida, basically the urban centers of the US.
The total number in the US is 2,323, but keep in mind that’s up from 19 cases at the beginning of June.
And yeah, I think it’s safe to say that we’re all a little shellshocked from Covid-19, because we all remember when we were all like, “oh, it’s just a few cases in Washington” and then suddenly there were thousands and then… well. Yeah. Here we are.
Monkeypox in Africa
Now I mentioned earlier those countries in Africa where monkeypox is normally found, the Democratic Republic of Congo has by far the most cases, with 1356 reported between January 1st and May 22, 2022. Monkeypox had killed more than 70 people in Africa this year. According to the sources we found.
Now the fact that it’s been historically seen in Africa and it’s called monkeypox, you probably put 2 and 2 together and assume it got its name because there are monkeys in Africa and it jumped from monkeys to humans there. You would be wrong.
It actually came from Denmark.
It was first seen in monkeys kept at Denmark’s Statens Serum Institute, in 1958. It was first seen in humans 12 years later.https://www.who.int/emergencies/disease-outbreak-news/item/2022-DON388
Monkeypox is a type of orthopoxvirus, this is the same genus that includes cowpox, camelpox, and skunkpox. Didn’t know skunkpox was a thing did you?
It doesn’t include chickenpox, though, that’s a different type of virus but it does include – yikes – smallpox.
And the symptoms are similar to that of smallpox, including fever, exhaustion, headaches and swollen lymphnodes, and a rash of bumps that look like blisters or pimples.
Thankfully, what they don’t share is mortality rate. Before it was eradicated, smallpox had a mortality rate of 30%. Monkeypox has a 1–10% mortality rate.
Why “1-10%”? Because, just like coronavirus, there are a couple of variants. The variant from Central Africa is severe, the one from West Africa less so.
And it’s the milder variant that’s making its way around the world right now, so it’s unlikely monkeypox will become a deadly pandemic like COVID-19.
Unless, of course, it mutates.
Monkeypox, or MPV uses DNA to encode its genes. And that’s good because DNA is more stable and less prone to mutation than RNA viruses like say influenza and COVID-19.
But MPV has mutated in the past. And not for the better. That deadly version I talked about earlier was a mutation of the milder version.
And the more a virus spreads, the more chances it has to mutate. In fact a recent study suggests the exported variant has experienced “accelerated evolution”.
They studied samples collected in 2022 and compared them to samples from 2018 and 2019 and found about fifty DNA changes
hat’s at least six times the mutations researchers expected to find. These mutations don’t appear to have made monkeypox deadlier. But they may have made it more transmissible, in an unexpected way.
In 2003, we saw monkeypox for the first time in the US and it was traced to pet prairie dogs. Because apparently that’s a thing.
Pet prairie dogs that were housed near pet exotic African rodents. Which gave it to the prairie dogs, which bit their owners and gave it to their owners. Just… so many bad decisions there.
You know, I used to think exotic pets were really cool, I liked the idea of having a pet that nobody else had, thought that made me interesting… I’m not sure I’m a fan anymore.
It seems like a lot of these pandemics and outbreaks are zoonotic viruses that jump from animals to people, often exotic animals of some kind.
It just seems like a vector that triggers a lot of other vectors, if that makes any sense.
So I get it, prairie dogs are cute but no… Just… no…
In fact, one of the fears about monkeypox being a zoonotic virus is that this can become a cycle of zoonotic transmission. We got it from prairie dogs, maybe it could jump to our cats and then bounce back to us, each time mutating it a little more.
One interesting thing about this current outbreak is that back when it was only in Africa, cases were more common in rural areas, amongst hunters. But in this outbreak, you see it mostly in urban areas.
And that’s because though it’s not a sexually transmitted disease, it has mostly been spread through knocking the boots.
Is Monkeypox an STD?
This is actually where things do get a little prickly because it has been prevalent in gay communities, which of course some people have used to smear LGBT people.
Which outside of being gross and horrible is also dangerous because people generally don’t get tested or treated for stigmatized diseases, which only serves to spread it further.
Needs to be said again, just because it’s being spread by sexual contact does not make it a sexually transmitted disease.
And being called a “gay disease” brings up parallels to the early days of the AIDS crisis in the 80s.
Stigmatizing and moralizing it led to it not being taken seriously and let it take a foothold that it otherwise might not have.
And there are signs that that might be happening again. On June 25th, the WHO declined to declare monkeypox a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.
Setting aside the fact that P-H-E-I-C, pronounced FAKE, is the worst acronym ever, the decision is controversial.
There are concerns that lack of a PHEIC will discourage less-affected countries from fighting monkeypox now, instead of later. Some may hoard vaccines. Or they may simply wait so long, their outbreaks become critical, and they won’t have resources to help their neighbors.
Now, Monkeypox is not HIV. Not even close. But the best way to keep it that way is to prevent it from spreading and mutating.
One of the best ways to do that is with a vaccine. And we have one, a company called Bavarian Nordic makes it, and it’s approved for Monkeypox, but only like a million doses have ever been made.
Apparently people have tested using smallpox vaccinations, since they’re similar types of virus and they’ve been effective, but can be dangerous for people with compromised immune systems.
So, is monkeypox the next Covid? Not likely, not in its current state. But that doesn’t mean it’s harmless.
Maybe the bigger question is, is this our future? Are we doomed to bounce from one pandemic to another? Will we ever be able to shake somebody’s hand without a creepy-crawly feeling again?
The fact is, we evolved as isolated tribes of people who are now attempting to be a global species. And while there’s a lot of good that comes from our cultures mixing together, the downside is that yeah, our bugs get around.
In the past, this could lead to entire civilizations being wiped out – as we saw happen to the indigenous Americans.
Now all our cultures are colliding all the time. And if the grand story of humans is that we started as fragmented and isolated tribes that eventually became a global species, we’re in those awkward pre-teen years. The years when we haven’t fully stirred but we did just get thrown in the pot.
We’ve mixed enough to share our bugs but not enough to become immune to them.
Throw on top of that the encroaching of our habitats into nature, and the potential for a zoonotic virus to spillover goes through the roof as well.
Maybe we eventually get immune to all of them. Maybe new ones never stop coming and we’ll always be fighting something off. That’s probably a lot more likely.
The real story of the world is one of countless cells, all vying for supremacy. We’re just the only clumps of cells that became aware enough to know what’s going on.
Maybe that’s the way it’s been and that’s the way it always will be. Just whack-a-mole forever. Luckily most of them, like Monkeypox, are survivable. So maybe we should consider ourselves lucky.
So is Monkeypox something to be concerned about? Or is it just an overhyped clickbait? It’s a little bit of both.
Of course media companies are going to hype this to its clickiest level to get as many eyeballs as possible. Of course this is going to become pandemic porn.
And of course we’re all way more on edge about outbreaks of disease after what we’ve all been through. Or, the opposite, maybe crisis fatigue takes over and we just stop paying attention to it.
The best thing you can do right now is just be aware of the outbreak and take basic precautions. Monkeypox is only transmissible through close skin-to-skin contact. So you don’t have to worry about breathing it in. That’s good.
The CDC recommends avoiding close skin-to-skin contact with anybody that might have a rash that looks like blisters or bumps, don’t eat after or use utensils from someone who has monkeypox or looks like they might, don’t handle clothes or bedding used by anybody with monkeypox, and to wash your hands often with soap and sanitizer if you’ve come into contact with anybody with monkeypox.
And if you do have monkeypox, obviously they want you to isolate yourself until “all lesions have resolved, the scabs have fallen off, and a fresh layer of intact skin has formed.”
So if you’re scabby, stay inside. And if you meet someone who’s scabby, maybe knock somebody else’s boots.
Basically when it all comes down to it, some awareness and basic prevention is all that’s required here, but we can’t freak out over every outbreak that happens because well… we’re going to be seeing more of these.