What is monkeypox and is it really time to panic?

CC: Gabriela Kucerova at Unsplash

Every so often a disease will make its way from far flung shores and cause mass panic. A few years ago, Ebola virus struck terror amongst the friends of aid workers. Then, Zika began crossing borders. The latest addition to the headline-grabbing disease gang is monkeypox. But, what is it? And, do we really need to panic?

Your whistle stop guide to monkeypox

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), monkeypox is a viral illness that’s similar to smallpox. Although smallpox was eradicated in 1990,  monkeypox exists as a much milder version. Although the United States experienced an outbreak in 2003, it was later successfully contained through a vaccination program, strict public health measures, and infection control efforts.

Monkeypox’s symptoms are often non-specific at first. They include:

  • An intense headache
  • Fever
  • Back pain
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Muscle aches

After 0-5 days, the patient then develops a diffuse rash. In most cases, the condition is self-limiting. It’s more common in West Africa than most other regions, and has recently hit the UK’s shores via a naval officer who was positioned in Nigeria. As a result, monkeypox are once again hitting the headlines. The airline the officer flew with reached out to passengers, resulting in concerns that those onboard the flight would spread the disease elsewhere. It has a 1 to 10-percent fatality rate, with very young children falling into the highest risk group.

Should we start worrying about a new outbreak?


Reassuringly, monkeypox doesn’t spread easily. It initially made its way from animals to humans in the 1990s. However, once it finds a human host, it doesn’t spread with the same ease as conditions such as the flu. You can catch it via respiratory droplets. However, you’re only at risk when in close contact with a patient. For example, close face-to-face contact with someone in your household. The other human-to-human route is via bodily fluids.

As the CDC maintained control off the virus in 2003, it’s unlikely an outbreak of devastating proportions would occur. In the 2003 outbreak, the CDC didn’t need to develop a vaccine to control its spread. Instead, they used the smallpox vaccine, which is 85-percent effective in preventing monkeypox.

Are there ways you can reduce your risk of monkeypox?

At present, it appears you’re only at significant risk if you’re traveling to areas of Africa where the disease remains endemic. If you’re visiting Africa, make an appointment with your local travel health clinic first. Once there, you’ll receive advice on which diseases are present and how to protect yourself against them.

Otherwise, it’s worth knowing that monkeypox is more likely when you stay close to forests. The following animals are more likely to spread it through bites than others:

  • Gambian rats
  • Primates
  • Striped mice
  • Dormice

Additionally, you should avoid eating meat that doesn’t benefit from strict health and safety regulations while in Western and Sub Saharan Africa.

For now, you can relax. Monkeypox isn’t threatening a global pandemic.

About the Author

Laura McKeever
Laura has been a freelance medical writer for eight years. With a BSc in Medical Sciences and an MSc in Physician Assistant Studies, she complements her passion for medical news with real-life experiences. Laura’s most significant experience included writing for international pharmaceutical brands, including GSK.