So far there are at least 351 confirmed cases of monkeypox in humans in the United States, with more than half of states reporting at least one case. Given existing barriers to diagnosis and testing, it’s likely that there are a lot more cases out there than have been documented. So how do you protect yourself?
Should I rush out and get the monkeypox vaccine?
Hold up there: The vaccine is not available for the general public yet. You can’t just walk into the drugstore and get a dose the way you can for the COVID vaccine. There’s just not enough of it to go around. So if you are worried about getting monkeypox, but just out of a general fear rather than personally knowing somebody who’s had it, it’s good to keep in mind other ways you can protect yourself.
We discussed the basics of monkeypox here. The biggest thing to know is that it’s transmitted by close contact. If you have monkeypox you can spread it to your immediate family, sexual partners, and anybody you’ve had skin-to-skin contact with. If you share bedding, clothes, or towels with somebody, or if you share utensils like cups and silverware, it can be transmitted that way, too. It’s likely transmissible through respiratory droplets, although probably not aerosols.
Monkeypox lesions change in appearance through the course of the disease, but they can appear as fluid-filled or pus-filled blisters. Any fluid or scabs from the lesions can potentially transmit the virus, which is the basis for much of this advice.
The most important way to prevent monkeypox is to not be in close contact with a person who has it. And if you do notice a rash that may be monkeypox, you should definitely seek medical care and/or contact your public health department.
What about vaccines?
Here, we have a small bit of good news. At first, there was no widespread availability of monkeypox vaccines; the U.S. (like many other countries) just didn’t have enough vaccine to go around. Now, while there still aren’t enough doses to vaccinate everyone, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has announced that they have 1.6 million doses of the two-dose Jynneos monkeypox vaccine either in their hands or expected later this year—and they are ready to use them. Our friends at Gizmodo have more details on this announcement.
The U.S. also has stockpiles of a different vaccine, made for smallpox but also effective against monkeypox, but it has more side effects and is not recommended if you can get Jynneos.
Who has the highest priority for receiving the monkeypox vaccine?
HHS announced they will give priority to areas that have the highest cases of monkeypox. Right now, looking at the state-by-state numbers the CDC is tracking, there doesn’t seem to be a single hotspot. States with the most cases include California, New York, and Florida, which also happen to be some of the nation’s most populous.
The next step is for the vaccine to be given, by local public health authorities, to people at the highest risk of being exposed to monkeypox. The announcement names a few groups:
- People who have had “close physical contact” with someone who was diagnosed with monkeypox.
- People whose sexual partner was diagnosed with monkeypox.
- Men who have sex with men, and who have had multiple recent sexual partners in a place where monkeypox may have been spreading.
The vaccine can prevent monkeypox disease if you get it quickly enough after being exposed to the virus, so the strategy of vaccinating close contacts seems like a smart one.
Is monkeypox going to keep spreading?
Well, we don’t know yet. In the past, monkeypox outbreaks haven’t lasted too long in humans. But this strain of monkeypox has several mutations that may make it more transmissible. Case counts have been increasing with rapidity in places that do not normally have endemic monkeypox (like the U.S.), so this definitely has the potential to be a big deal.
And it will really suck if it becomes one. Current guidelines stipulate three weeks of isolation for people who have monkeypox. There aren’t a lot of people who can stay home from work for three weeks, and there is no plan that I’ve seen to provide those who are infected to receive financial or any other type of assistance.
The World Health Organization recently met to mull the monkeypox situation and decide whether to declare it a public health emergency of international concern. At that time, they said not yet—but the director-general said today that he’s getting the gang back together to revisit the issue.