The Biden administration has declared monkeypox a public health emergency as the virus spreads across the world, including more than 7,000 cases in the US.
Rhode Island had 28 reported cases as of Aug. 4, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
To learn more about the virus, I asked Dr. Amy Nunn, the executive director of the Rhode Island Public Health Institute, to explain what she’s seeing and hearing.
Q: We know that monkeypox isn’t all that similar to COVID-19. Is there a comparable virus?
Nunn: Besides the facts that the novel coronavirus and the monkeypox virus are both highly contagious and both impacting public health at this very moment, there are very few parallels between the two. The monkeypox virus comes from the same family as the virus that causes smallpox, and symptoms of the monkeypox disease – including fever, headache, muscle aches, chills, and rashes that may look like pimples or blisters – are generally similar (although typically more mild) to smallpox. Early data suggests monkeypox is very rarely fatal, but symptoms can be extremely painful and can sometimes lead to permanent scarring and other long-term medical issues.
Q: It sounds like sexual intercourse is one of the more common ways that the virus spreads. How else is it spreading?
Nunn: It’s important to note that the public health and epidemiology communities do not yet know whether monkeypox is, medically speaking, “sexually transmitted.” We do know the virus is transmitted through close, personal, often skin-to-skin contact, including direct contact with monkeypox rashes, sores, or scabs, which means sexual partners could obviously spread the virus during sex, but not necessarily because of having sex. The virus can also spread through direct contact with objects, fabrics (clothing, bedding, or towels), and other surfaces that have been used by someone with monkeypox; and through respiratory droplets or oral fluids from a person with monkeypox.
Long story short: Based on what we know today, yes, monkeypox may spread during intercourse, but, no, you don’t need to have intercourse in order to contract monkeypox.
Q: Rhode Island reported 28 cases as of Aug. 4. Should we expect a larger surge?
Nunn: Yes, we are expecting a larger surge of monkeypox infections across the country, including here in Rhode Island. Twenty-eight cases (as of Aug. 4) may seem like a low number to some readers, but the state only had nine confirmed cases two weeks ago. We are in the early stages of this epidemic, and our understanding of the virus is evolving on a day-by-day basis. We believe that because testing and surveillance have been so limited, this number represents an underestimate of the true number of people who may have monkeypox. It is crucial for potentially impacted individuals to speak with their care providers, keep an eye on their symptoms, and – depending on their eligibility – sign up for a vaccine when supplies are available.
Q: What more can Rhode Island do to prevent outbreaks?
Nunn: It’s important that we educate and inform the general public about the signs and symptoms of monkeypox. We also encourage anyone who thinks they may have monkeypox symptoms or who has been exposed to someone with monkeypox to get tested immediately. (Note: Testing is conducted by swabbing a lesion on an individual’s body. If you do not have any symptoms, or if you only have flu-like symptoms, there is no way to test for moneypox.) People can get tested at Open Door Health by calling 401-648-4700 to make an appointment.
Perhaps most importantly, we also strongly encourage eligible individuals to get vaccinated as soon as possible. Our Open Door Health facility on Central Street in Providence is accepting vaccination appointment requests from gay, bisexual, or other man who has sex with other men. For people who need to schedule a vaccine, please visit Open Door Health. While our vaccine supply currently remains extremely limited, we have a waiting list, which will help us quickly and efficiently and immediately administer more shots as additional supply becomes available.
This story first appeared in Rhode Map, our free newsletter about Rhode Island that also contains information about local events, data about the coronavirus in the state, and more. If you’d like to receive it via e-mail Monday through Friday, you can sign up here.