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Is Monkeypox a Serious Public Health Threat in Atlanta?

Experts weigh in on the severity of the virus as more cases pop up throughout Georgia.

Health experts say any illness from monkeypox will likely be mild and is much less likely to be fatal than COVID-19. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

This story has been updated.

As monkeypox spreads across the world, local residents are beginning to wonder how worried they should be about the virus. Should Black communities be worried that monkeypox has pandemic-level implications like COVID-19? We explain. 

What is Monkeypox?

Monkeypox is a rare disease caused by the orthopoxvirus, the same family of viruses as smallpox. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the virus was first discovered by researchers in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1958. In the recent outbreak, countries that don’t usually report monkeypox — the United States and United Kingdom —  have seen a rise in cases. So far there have been over 500 reported cases in Georgia. A spokesperson for the Georgia Department of Public Health says a majority of the state’s cases are in metro Atlanta. 

What are the symptoms?

One of the most tell-tale signs of monkeypox is a very distinctive rash. The lesions from the rash, according to the CDC, can look like pimples or blisters. 

“They can occur pretty much anywhere on the body, and they go through different stages of healing before they completely go away,” Dr. Mitchell Blass of the Georgia Infectious Diseases group said of the sores.

According to the CDC, the lesions go through four stages, where they get bigger and more deep-seated. Eventually, they scab over and heal. Experts say anyone infected with monkeypox shouldn’t leave isolation until all wounds are completely healed. 

How can you get infected?

Unlike COVID-19, which is airborne, monkeypox spreads from prolonged human-to-human contact. This includes activities like kissing, cuddling, or touching parts of the body with monkeypox sores, according to David Daigle, a spokesperson for the CDC. In fact, a large majority of cases nationwide have been sexually transmitted, though it’s unclear if the virus can be contracted through vaginal fluid and semen. 

While it has mostly affected Black men in Georgia, anyone can get the disease from skin to skin contact. Having direct contact with monkeypox sores or the clothing or bedding of a person with monkeypox can cause transmission. Also, respiratory droplets can cause infection as well. The virus can also be spread from handling animals that have the disease.

Read more: We Spoke to An Atlanta Man with Monkeypox. Here’s What We Learned.

Should Black residents in metro Atlanta be concerned?

Like COVID-19, Black residents in the state have been disproportionately affected by monkeypox. More than 80% of cases in the state where racial data is available have affected Black men who have sex with men, DPH told Capital B Atlanta.

Black people experienced higher numbers of death in the pandemic. In Georgia, Black people make up around 40% of hospitalizations related to COVID-19. 

The World Health Organization has called the recent outbreak “unusual,” and urged governments to act with urgency. In July, the WHO declared monkeypox a global public health emergency. The CDC has yet to follow suit, and no metro Atlanta county has declared an emergency over monkeypox. 

While the CDC hasn’t released racial data on the most recent outbreak of monkeypox, Dr. Nina Harawa, a professor of epidemiology at UCLA, noted that like COVID-19, there’s a chance the virus could disproportionately affect Black people. 

“In the beginning with COVID-19, it was actually affecting well-off people more so because they were the ones who had traveled and were more likely to come into contact,” she said. “It very quickly moved into majority people of color populations, low income populations, who had higher levels of exposure because of their jobs or their living conditions. They also had worse outcomes, in part because of lower access to care.”

If you live in Georgia, your risk is said to be low, though Georgia has the sixth-highest monkeypox case count in the country. The very first case of monkeypox in Georgia came from a metro Atlanta man who has a history of international travel

The disease itself will likely be mild and is much less likely to be fatal than COVID-19. 

“Close to 99% of people who get sick with it have a skin eruption and do not have a systemic illness,” Blass said. “To get seriously ill or die from it is highly, highly, highly unusual.”

How can you avoid monkeypox? 

There are steps you can take to avoid catching the disease. If you can secure a vaccine appointment, do so. But also, take as many precautions as you can during sex. The CDC recommends having candid conversations with sexual partners about any recent illnesses, and avoiding sex if you or a partner has an unexplained rash. 

If you go to social gatherings, you’re less likely to contract monkeypox around fully clothed people who are outside. Try to minimize skin-to-skin contact when you go to social gatherings. 

Monkeypox is contagious but not as transmissible, nor as deadly, as COVID-19. 

“Most people who are infected with monkeypox virus recover fully within two to four weeks without the need for any specific treatment,” Daigle said. “In certain circumstances, it may be recommended to use [vaccines] after close contact with someone who has monkeypox, based on an assessment of the person’s risk for developing monkeypox.”

If you do come into contact with someone who has monkeypox, try to isolate as much as possible. Also, contact your primary care physician or your local health department.

To keep up with the spread of monkeypox, experts suggest following updates on the CDC’s websites, the World Health Organization, or any trusted source. 

How is monkeypox treated? Is there a vaccine?

There is no specific treatment for monkeypox, according to the CDC. However, since monkeypox and smallpox are genetically similar, antivirals to treat it, like tecovirimat (TPOXX), may be recommended for people who are more likely to get severe illness. 

Vaccines for monkeypox are available in Georgia, but supply is very limited, according to various health officials. Right now, DPH is following the CDC guidance that only allows for men who have sex with men and have had more than two sex partners in two weeks to get the vaccine. However, it’s unclear if you’ll be turned away if you don’t fall into the categories. 

Read more: Black Americans Are Disproportionately Affected By Monkeypox. U.S. Officials Failed To Mention It.

Past data shows that the smallpox vaccine is at least 85% effective in preventing monkeypox. Smallpox was declared eradicated in 1980. The younger you are, the less likely it is that you received a smallpox vaccine. There are two vaccines available to prevent monkeypox, one of them called Jynneos, but the CDC says they aren’t just handing them out to everyone. Instead, risk of developing infection will be weighed before distributing vaccines. 

What are the local state and county health departments doing to address the outbreak?

Testing and vaccines are now available in every health district in Georgia. County health departments have been overwhelmed because of a lack of a central place to respond to the monkeypox virus. They’ve organized their own vaccination sites, but with limited vaccines available, appointments have been taken up within minutes. 

Nancy Nydam, a DPH spokesperson, says a centralized website for vaccine appointments will debut soon. 

For more information about where to get vaccine and testing info in metro Atlanta, check out these resource pages:

What’s in a name? 

According to the CDC, the name comes from the fact that the virus was first discovered among monkeys from the Democratic Republic of Congo that were kept in a lab for research. Despite its name, the specific source of the disease is unknown, though the CDC says infected rodents can harbor the disease and spread it to humans. 

A group of biologists from across the globe, including some in the United States, say the name has racist connotations. When the first monkeypox virus infection was discovered in humans, outbreaks were reported in parts of Western and Central Africa, according to the biologists. This recent global outbreak, however, has no clear link to Africa, which caused the group to call for an urgent need to come up with a “non-stigmatizing” nomenclature for the virus. The WHO agrees, and says it is working with experts to come up with a new name for the virus.