Health Care

What Vermonters need to know about monkeypox

This image provided by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases shows a colorized transmission electron micrograph of monkeypox particles (red) found within an infected cell (blue), cultured in the laboratory that was captured and color-enhanced at the NIAID Integrated Research Facility in Fort Detrick, Maryland. Image via AP

Late last week, Vermont became the last state in New England to have documented a monkeypox case

Monkeypox, a contagious virus that recently triggered a global health emergency declaration from the World Health Organization, has now spread to nearly every U.S. state

Though there have been documented cases of monkeypox since the 1970s, mainly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other African nations, the virus, which also goes by mpox or hMPXV, never caused a worldwide outbreak until now. 

To date, roughly 23,000 cases have been documented worldwide, of which roughly 5,800 are in the United States and its territories, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

As of Tuesday morning, Vermont continues to have just one documented monkeypox case, according to the state Department of Health. 

Though there’s much that we still don’t know about the present outbreak, public health officials have a frame of reference because the virus is similar to smallpox, albeit less deadly. And it’s because of that genetic relationship between the viruses that nations can make use of what smallpox vaccines and treatments they have available. 

Here’s what we know.

How do you catch monkeypox?

Monkeypox transmits through bodily fluids and “personal, intimate contact,” said Tim Lahey, an infectious disease doctor at the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington. 

“It has to be close contact,” he said. “So snuggling, hugging, kissing and it can be sexually transmitted. So it’s not like Covid-19 where you could walk down the aisle of the grocery store and take a breath at the wrong time and get it.” 

The virus causes fever, chills and body aches. People with the disease also develop a rash that looks like pimples or blisters on their face, inside their mouths or on their hands and feet, according to the CDC. The disease runs its course within two to four weeks and most healthy people recover fully with no long-term side effects. 

Am I at risk for complications?

Whereas the blisters are annoying and uncomfortable to healthy people, immunocompromised people and those who have eczema can have a more serious reaction to the virus, up to and including blisters on the windpipe, according to Lahey. 

Pregnant people with the disease could lose their baby, according to Lahey, and children younger than 8 could have a more severe disease. 

Lahey said that experts base most of these assertions on previous documented cases in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and on scientific understanding of smallpox. As with coronavirus, the information may change as the outbreak progresses and health authorities gather more information, Lahey said. 

Who’s at risk for catching the disease?

Scientists have traced the current monkeypox outbreak to an LGBTQ+ pride event in the Canary Islands, according to Lahey. From there, the virus likely spread to Europe through a couple of raves. Most of the cases in Europe have been linked to these raves and the pride event, where men who have sex with men congragated. 

The disease can transmit to anyone, so long as there’s close contact, but the virus has seeded itself in communities of men who have sex with other men, putting them at higher risk for catching the virus, according to Lahey.

What do I do if I think I was exposed?

The Vermont Department of Health recommends you call your doctor to get tested if you’ve come in contact with someone who has the virus or if you have unexplained rashes or sores. You can also call the state’s 211 number to be connected to services if you don’t have a health care provider or insurance. 

People who were exposed to the virus but aren’t showing any symptoms will receive a two-dose smallpox shot that should prevent them from developing symptoms. Healthy people that have already developed symptoms will be asked to avoid close contact with people and animals until they recover. Patients that are at high risk for complications may receive a course of Brincidofovir, but because the antiviral drug carries serious side effects, providers rarely give it to patients.

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Liora Engel-Smith

About Liora

Liora Engel-Smith covers health care for VTDigger. She previously covered rural health at NC Health News in North Carolina and the Keene Sentinel in New Hampshire. She also had been at the Muscatine Journal in rural Iowa. Engel-Smith has master's degrees in public health from Drexel University and journalism from Temple University. Before moving to journalism, she was a scientist who briefly worked in the pharmaceutical industry.

Email: [email protected]

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