The positive side of the monkeypox crisis
About monkeypox, you can be concerned – curious even – but don’t lose sleep over it.
And good things can come out of a bad situation. Here are my three positive takes:
1. Few merits come with being older. But here’s one. If you’re 50 years old or over, you could be protected from the worst of monkeypox due to the smallpox vaccine.
Monkeypox is in the same family as smallpox. (By the way, they have nothing to do with chickenpox.) Data from Africa suggest most (85%) of those smallpox-vaccinated are protected or partially protected from monkeypox. We have no data from the current outbreak.
The U.S. stopped smallpox vaccinations in 1972. If you were born overseas, it might be later. WHO stopped recommending routine smallpox vaccination in 1980. Feel your upper arm for the scar.
Because smallpox is a potential biological weapon, the U.S. has stockpiled two types of smallpox vaccines that can be used for monkeypox.
The better tolerated one – JYNNEOS – is in short supply. When push comes to shove, we have enough to vaccinate a third of the U.S. population today.
2. There are two types of monkeypox viruses. The current outbreak, the West African clade, is the more benign of the two (the other is Congo Basin).
As of Aug. 9, 2022, excluding Africa, there are about 31,000 cases of monkeypox and 4 deaths globally.
Admittedly, I was surprised by how fast monkeypox has spread. Pox viruses are tricky for the following reasons:
First, unlike smallpox, which can only infect humans, monkeypox has an animal reservoir, possibly in the rodent family. We can contact-trace humans, but we can’t contact-trace dormice and squirrels.
Second, pox virus can survive on surfaces for days if not weeks. Also, the virus can travel through physical contact and air. But in real life, direct and extended skin-to-skin contact (like sex, kissing, etc.) is likely the major mode of transmission. Transmission through contact with contaminated surfaces is considered “rare.”
For questions like “Can I ever use public toilets again?” I recommend a BuzzFeed News article “Monkeypox can spread in three ways. Here’s what to know…” I was going to say more, but BuzzFeed reporter Katie Camero did such a good job, I gave up.
The bottom line for the general public: Wash hands frequently.
3. You may or may not agree with me on this one. But a high-profile health crisis like this can launch a scientific breakthrough. I’m still amazed by how fast the first mRNA COVID-19 vaccine came about.
Monkeypox is one of many neglected diseases in developing countries. By declaring it a health emergency, major health agencies refocus resources and manpower to tackle it. Doctors are fired up: “All blisters are monkeypox till proven otherwise.” Journalists finally, finally have something to write about other than COVID sub-sub-variants.
Personally, having this exotic, rodent-loving virus knocking on my front door reminds me just how vulnerable we can be and how connected we are to the rest of the world.