Monkeypox outbreak primarily spreading through sex with men, CDC and WHO warn

Electron microscope image of various virions (virus particles) of the monkeypox virus taken from human skin, 2003.
Electron microscope image of various virions (virus particles) of the monkeypox virus taken from human skin, 2003. Photo credit CDC/Goldsmith/Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

ATLANTA (KNX) — The World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued separate warnings about an outbreak of monkeypox worldwide, especially cautioning gay and bisexual men.

The concerning outbreak of monkeypox in Europe and North America is currently and principally spread through sexual intercourse with men, the World Health Organization officials said Monday.

The CDC followed that warning late Monday, noting that many of the patients supposedly infected with the zoonotic virus identify as same-gender-loving men. However, the organization cautioned that monkeypox could infect anyone regardless of sexual orientation through personal contact. No one group is more prone to acquire the virus, and monkeypox is not a sexually transmitted disease. It can pass on through intimate contact and shared bedding.

“We want to help people make the best informed decisions to protect their health and the health of their community from monkeypox,” Dr. John Brooks, an epidemiologist who heads the HIV/AIDS Prevention Division, said.

Monkeypox generally spreads when a person comes into contact with the virus from an animal, human, or contaminated materials, the CDC wrote on its website.

“The virus enters the body through broken skin (even if not visible), respiratory tract, or the mucous membranes (eyes, nose, or mouth),” the organization detailed.

Monkeypox transmission generally occurs through large respiratory droplets during prolonged face-to-face contact between humans. However, it can also spread through body fluids and lesions.

“Respiratory spread is not the predominant worry,” Dr. Jennifer McQuiston, a CDC veterinarian, and outbreak investigation specialist, pointed out. “It is contact and intimate contact in the current outbreak setting and population.”

“Anyone with a rash or lesion around or involving their genitals, their anus, or any other place that they have not seen it before, should be fully evaluated,” Brooks said. “Both for that rash, but particularly, for sexually transmitted infection and other illnesses that can cause rash.”

Health officials have confirmed one case of monkeypox in Massachusetts. Four cases of confirmed orthopox — one in Florida, one in New York, and two in Utah — have been sent to the CDC in Atlanta for further analysis. Not all state and county labs have the ability to specify the virus beyond its genus (Orthopoxvirus), which also includes cowpox and vaccinia. All of the cases are reportedly connected to recent travel.

Worldwide, scientists have analyzed nearly 200 suspected or confirmed cases of monkeypox across a dozen countries in Europe and North America. However, the virus is usually only found in West and Central Africa, where it remains endemic.

Monkeypox symptoms are “very similar to those seen in the past in smallpox patients, although it is clinically less severe,” WHO says. President Joe Biden said Monday that the U.S. had enough smallpox vaccines on hand if it needed to deploy the life-saving treatments. A massive 100 million doses of the vaccine — estimated to be around 85% successful in preventing the virus — are stored away stateside. Still, experts say the older vaccine carries severe side effects and risks.

A newer drug, Jynneos (or Imvamune or Imvanex), approved by the FDA in 2019, comes with more minor side effects. It is the only drug approved for smallpox prevention, but the U.S. has a mere 1,000 available doses. McQuiston said that that number would grow as the drugmaker increases production in the coming weeks.

The CDC cautioned there is no evidence of the virus spreading rapidly throughout the U.S.

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