(Udomkarn Chitkul/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

What Is Monkeypox, And Could It Become The Next Pandemic?


Like its close relative the smallpox virus, monkeypox is a pathogen in the Orthopoxvirus family. It is transmitted through contaminated body fluids or close contact with infected humans and other animals.


Approximately a week or two following infection, the virus gives rise to a fever, headaches, muscle aches, swollen lymph nodes, and exhaustion. Several days later a rash might appear, usually on or around the face, which can progress into blistery pustules that scab before healing in the following weeks.

Although in many ways similar in presentation to smallpox, monkeypox is fortunately regarded as self-limiting, making it far less severe.

Nonetheless, monkeypox is still seen as a serious illness that carries a risk of ongoing complications, from the effects of sepsis and encephalitis to blindness from eye infections. Without medical treatment or vaccination, nearly one in ten people infected are at risk of fatal complications, especially among young children.

Compared with the horrors of smallpox, which at its peak claimed nearly one out of every three infected, monkeypox might not seem that bad. But if we've learned anything from the COVID-19 pandemic, it's better to be safe than sorry when it comes to potentially deadly viruses.

Why is it called monkeypox?

The name monkeypox dates back to 1958, following an outbreak of the virus among laboratory test monkeys at a Copenhagen research facility. Don't let the name fool you though – while monkeys can catch and transmit the virus, it's more often caught through popular sources of so-called bushmeat like dormice and African squirrels.

It wouldn't be until 1970 that the first human case would be identified, as the World Health Organization (WHO) focused their efforts on eradicating smallpox in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Today, the majority of infections are still found in this central African nation, though outbreaks have been reported in a number of neighboring countries.


Why is monkeypox spreading around the world now?

While the 2022 monkeypox outbreaks are making headlines, it's not the first time the virus has been found outside of African populations.

In mid-2003, 71 cases of the illness were reported to the CDC across six US states, with 35 confirmed through laboratory tests to be caused by the monkeypox virus. All of these confirmed cases were traced back to infected prairie dogs purchased from an animal distributor in Illinois, which in turn had been infected by Gambian giant rats and dormice imported from Ghana.

Three cases were also reported in the UK in 2018. Surprisingly, one of the cases was not directly related to the other two. All had recently been in Nigeria, where monkeypox is known to circulate.

On the face of it, the numerous concurrent outbreaks occurring mid-2022 might have the appearance of a potential pandemic, especially with the recent emergence of the devastating SARS-CoV-2. Numerous suspected and confirmed cases around the globe, including the US, UK, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Australia, hint at unseen, widespread transmission.

Most of those infected appear to be the result of close intimate contact (primarily between men), who have been diagnosed following reporting to health clinics. There have been no reported deaths at the time of writing this article.

With no indication of a mutation that could be responsible for increasing the microbe's virulence, it's likely a sudden surge in travel with an easing of COVID restrictions could be behind the outbreaks. Greater vigilance over personal health could also help to explain the outbreak's epidemiology.


Should we be worried about a monkeypox pandemic?

Aside from advice to remain vigilant, the WHO sees no need to restrict travel or engage in a vaccination program.

In the past, outbreaks have been limited to a handful of infected people, with little to no human-to-human transmission. Spread has therefore been restricted.

Unlike SARS-CoV-2, monkeypox can't spread through the air. With the smallpox vaccine effective against the virus, authorities are already well armed should concerns continue to escalate.

What the virus's apparent spread does represent is the ease with which viruses move with increased travel and relaxed hygiene. From measles to influenza, there are more and far deadlier pathogens we're already familiar with that will no doubt be on the rise with the reopening of the world.


All Explainers are determined by fact checkers to be correct and relevant at the time of publishing. Text and images may be altered, removed, or added to as an editorial decision to keep information current.