• Monkeypox is a viral infection that primarily spreads via skin-to-skin contact.
  • Since the first reported U.S. case in May, infections have risen steadily—with numbers highest in New York, California, and Illinois.
  • Vaccination can help prevent both initial infection and the development of symptoms.
  • Unlike many other vaccinations, not everyone is eligible to receive them.
  • Your primary healthcare provider can advise on your eligibility status.

Just as we get to grips with one infectious disease, another makes its way into the headlines: Monkeypox.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t just affect monkeys and chimps. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states it ‘does not spread easily between people’, humans are still susceptible.

“Monkeypox is a viral infection that is spread between people through direct skin-to-skin contact, and to a lesser degree, respiratory secretions during prolonged, close contact,” explains Brian Labus, PhD, assistant professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas School of Public Health.

However, while we were all recently encouraged to get the COVID-19 jab, there’s not been the same push behind the monkeypox vaccination—even though case numbers continue to slowly rise.

So should you be taking matters into your own hands and thinking about getting it?

Before we get onto vaccinations, here’s a quick refresher on the disease.

“Monkeypox…causes a characteristic rash, along with systemic symptoms including fevers, chills, and myalgias [aches and pains],” states Dr. Mireya Wessolossky, infectious disease specialist and associate professor at UMass Memorial Medical Center. “The skin eruption usually begins within one to four days following fever onset and continues for two to three weeks. Cases of rash without fever have [also] been reported.”

Whereas COVID-19 has resulted in many fatalities, Labus notes that “fortunately, deaths from monkeypox are quite rare.” The CDC says those who are pregnant or breastfeeding, with weakened immune systems, who have a history of eczema, or are under the age of eight, are at greater risk of serious illness.

Who can catch monkeypox?

Anyone can contract the disease. Even though many cases are being seen among men who have sex with men, “that doesn’t mean it isn’t spreading in other populations,” states Labus.

Because doses are in short supply and the risk of exposure is low, only select individuals are currently being offered the vaccine. This is namely “those considered ‘high risk’ by the CDC and other health authorities,” explains Dr. Martin Hirsch, editor at Wolters Kluwer’s UpToDate, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, professor of infectious disease and immunology at the Harvard School of Public Health, and senior physician in infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

According to Hirsch, people classed as high risk include:

  • Those likely to have been exposed via sexual encounters in the past 14 days with someone who had monkeypox;
  • Those having multiple sexual encounters during the previous 14 days in an area with monkeypox activity;
  • Healthcare workers caring for someone with suspected or proven monkeypox and exposed to procedures likely to be associated with aerosols and not wearing an N95 mask or eye protection.

Labus says that individuals at high risk due to their jobs—such as those in clinical labs conducting monkeypox testing—should also be vaccinated.

If you think you’re eligible to receive a vaccination, contact your primary healthcare provider.

“Vaccine availability and eligibility will largely depend on where you live and guidance from your local health department considering your individual circumstances,” explains Matt Weissenbach, DrPH, senior director of clinical affairs at Wolters Kluwer Health.

Those who qualify will be told about the next steps and where in the local area they can get vaccinated.

What to do if you’re not eligible

If you cannot receive a monkeypox vaccination, there are other steps you can take to help protect yourself against infection.

For example, avoid having “close, skin-to-skin contact with people who have a rash that looks like monkeypox,” Weissenbach states. If you know someone with monkeypox, do not handle or touch their clothing, bedding, or towels, he adds.

Hirsch also recommends familiarizing yourself with the signs and symptoms of monkeypox and staying alert for them, especially as “incubation periods may be up to two weeks.”

Don’t forget to use hand sanitizer (with a minimum of 70% alcohol content) when you’re on the go, and regularly wash your hands with soap and water.

There are two types of vaccination currently being offered. Each works to protect against the virus differently and comes with its own side effects.

The Jynneos vaccine is “the preferred type,” notes Hirsch, and “does not contain the replicative virus.” Potential side effects of this vaccination include “local reactions at the site of injection (swelling, redness, pain) or allergic reactions in certain people,” he continues.

Those “with a severe allergy to any component of the Jynneos vaccine (gentamicin, ciprofloxacin, egg protein) should not receive [it],” Wessolossky adds.

Meanwhile, the MVA vaccine does contain the replicative virus—and can therefore lead to more significant side effects. “In addition to the reactions described above, [the MVA vaccine] can cause serious disease in people who are immunocompromised, pregnant, have certain cardiac diseases, or skin diseases such as eczema or atopic dermatitis,” Hirsch states.

Speak to your healthcare provider if you’re worried about which vaccination you’re receiving and any possible side effects.

The CDC is currently monitoring the situation closely and posting regular updates on its website. Although numbers have been increasing, “the good news is that monkeypox is a self-limiting disease and isn’t quite as contagious as other viruses,” notes Weissenbach.

The Food and Drug Administration has also announced that around a million more vaccination doses will soon be arriving from Denmark.

While nobody can state precisely when the current spate of infections will end, “observed monkeypox outbreaks in non-endemic countries should be contained relatively quickly, particularly when adequate mitigation measures are implemented,” Weissenbach says.

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