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Boston monkeypox patient had 200 contacts

A patient who was hospitalized last week in Boston with monkeypox was at Massachusetts General Hospital until last Friday.Blake Nissen for the Boston Globe

Health officials have identified 200 people who came in contact with a patient who was hospitalized last week in Boston with the monkeypox virus, a CDC official said Monday, adding that “the vast majority” were health care workers.

The illness is not considered easily transmissible and, unlike COVID-19, people are not contagious until after they have symptoms.

The World Health Organization has identified more than 100 suspected and confirmed cases of the virus in a recent outbreak in Europe and North America. The illness is rarely seen outside of West and Central Africa, though WHO officials said on Monday that there was no sign the virus had mutated into a more easily transmissible form.

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When asked what happens when a contact is identified, a spokeswoman for the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention referred questions to the state Department of Public Health, which did not reply to multiple requests for information Monday afternoon.

The patient, who was at Massachusetts General Hospital until last Friday, is the first confirmed case of the illness in the United States this year. Four other likely cases have been identified: one each in New York City and Florida, and two in Utah.

Monkeypox is transmitted through close skin-to-skin contact. It can also be transmitted through respiratory droplets when a patient has lesions in the mouth.

Dr. Erica Shenoy, medical director of the Regional Emerging Special Pathogens Treatment Center at Mass. General, said that as long as a person has no symptoms, there is no reason to quarantine. Mass. General did its own contact tracing within the hospital, she said, but declined to say how many people had potentially been exposed there. Those who had contact with the patient take a daily symptom survey.

Monkeypox symptoms include a fever and distinctive rash with fluid-filled lesions, and sometimes swollen lymph nodes. Most people recover within two to four weeks without specific treatment. In the rare instances when monkeypox is seen outside of Africa, the cases are usually traced to animals or people who have traveled to Africa.

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The recent illnesses in Europe and North America have sparked concern because the route of transmission is unclear — most cases are in people who have not traveled to Africa.

“We’re in the early days of this response,” said Captain Jennifer McQuiston, deputy director of the CDC’s Division of High Consequence Pathogens and Pathology. “It’s likely there are going to be additional cases reported in the United States.”

McQuiston said the United States is now seeing “only a handful of cases.”

“I don’t think there’s a great risk to the general community,” she said. Instead, officials hope to raise awareness in the communities where the virus is spreading.

Many of the people recently infected with monkeypox identify as gay and bisexual men, said Dr. John Brooks, medical epidemiologist at the CDC’s Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention. He urged members of the LGBTQIA+ community to seek care for any unexplained rash or symptoms. The monkeypox rash can resemble sexually transmitted diseases such as herpes, Brooks said.

Dr. David Heymann, an adviser to the World Health Organization, told the Associated Press on Monday that the leading theory to explain the spread of the disease was sexual transmission at raves held in Spain and Belgium.

Unlike COVID, monkeypox is not new. In 2003, there was an outbreak in the United States, traced to exotic animals, and two vaccines and one antiviral drug are available to combat it, McQuiston said.

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Felice J. Freyer can be reached at felice.freyer@globe.com. Follow her @felicejfreyer.