Monkeypox was first discovered in 1958 and is considered “an old virus” by the public health community. That said, according to New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett, there are three issues that have raised the level of concern around the virus among public health officials around the country.
“We are seeing it in countries where we’ve never seen it before, and it’s being spread in these countries,” Bassett explained.
The virus has spread to 70 countries, so far.
“The other is that it’s presenting clinically in ways that the sort of textbook case of monkeypox didn’t present," Bassett said. "That means that we’re seeing the rash, not like the textbook rash. And one that can appear in genital areas.”
The virus spreads by skin-to-skin contact.
Finally, the virus is also “spreading principally in a social network of men who have sex with men,” she said. “We are seeing it everywhere in the United States, in our state and around the world.”
Bassett underscored the fact that monkeypox is not a sexually transmitted disease, nor should it be considered a disease that is exclusive to gay men.
“This spreads by substantial skin-to-skin contact, face-to-face contact, the kind of contact that people have when they’re having sex,” she explained. “We have seen it introduced into a network of men who have sex with men, but anyone can get monkeypox."
That includes women and children. But currently, the concern is about a stigmatized network, “so we have to both sound the alarm and protect people against the stigma,” Bassett said.
Protecting yourself against the virus may mean changing sexual habits as well as being vaccinated. New York will be receiving 110,000 doses of the new monkeypox vaccine. There is also an anti-viral drug available.
“Always the best thing to do is avoid exposure in the first place and that’s why we’re talking about high-risk situations. Not high-risk people, but high-risk situations, and that’s situations where people may meet, meet to have sex with people they don’t know, or don’t know well,” Bassett said. “Raves and saunas, those are situations that are high-risk situations.”
While there is a test for the virus, there is currently no at-home or rapid test to find out if you are positive.
“We have a test that we can perform when somebody gets the rash and it becomes a pustule, and we do a swab,” said Bassett. “But you might find you have the rash three weeks after you’ve gotten infected. It can have a very long incubation period.”