A new virus is spreading around Tampa Bay, bringing back memories of the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.
What is monkeypox?
Monkeypox, which is endemic in parts of central and west Africa, is a viral disease similar to smallpox but milder that typically lasts two to four weeks.
Since mid-May, the virus has been spreading across the world, including Europe and the United States.
Monkeypox is zoonotic, meaning it can spread from infected animals to humans. It can also be transmitted from person to person via an infected individual’s rash or scabs when kissing, having sex or engaging in other skin contact.
Ulcers in the mouth can be infectious, meaning the virus can also be spread through respiratory droplets, according to the World Health Organization.
During the current global outbreak, scientists believe the virus is primarily being transmitted via sexual activity, though it’s still unknown whether it can be spread through semen or vaginal fluids.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms include fever, chills, headaches, muscle aches, swollen lymph nodes and a rash that resembles pimples or blisters on the face, inside the mouth or on the hands, feet, chest, genitals or anus.
Sometimes, patients will only have a single genital ulcer, meaning monkeypox can be mistaken for herpes or syphilis.
How many cases are in Tampa Bay?
Pinellas County has recorded 16 cases, according to state data current as of Thursday. Hillsborough County has diagnosed eight infections. Cases have more than doubled in Hillsborough since early last week. No infections have been reported in Pasco County.
Florida has identified 374 cases, with about 75% of those in Broward and Miami-Dade counties.
The U.S. has reported more than 4,900 cases.
Who is at risk?
Anyone can get monkeypox, but the vast majority of cases during the current outbreak have been reported among men who have sex with men, health officials say.
Earlier this year, a leading adviser to the World Health Organization told The Associated Press that the global spread may have been caused by sexual transmission at raves in Spain and Belgium.
“Viruses don’t discriminate,” said Luke Johnsen, medical director for Metro Inclusive Health, a Tampa Bay area LGBTQ-focused health and wellness center. “It just so happened that the spread in Europe (occurred) within a certain community.”
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Jonathan Tolentino, a doctor and professor at the University of Miami, stressed that monkeypox is “not a ‘quote-unquote’ gay disease. This is not a disease just particular to the LGBTQ community.”
“Did it affect our community first? Yes. But it doesn’t mean that it’s not going to affect other communities,” he said during a recent online discussion hosted by Equality Florida, an advocacy group for LGBTQ rights.
Is monkeypox as dangerous as COVID-19?
The virus is rarely fatal, but symptoms can be extremely painful and may cause scarring. Roughly 10% of the more than 18,000 cases worldwide have resulted in hospitalization for pain management.
No deaths have been reported in the U.S. during the current outbreak. Those with weakened immune systems or skin conditions such as eczema, young kids, pregnant people and breastfeeding mothers may be at a higher risk of serious illness or death.
What should you do if you have symptoms?
If someone has symptoms or thinks they’ve been exposed to monkeypox in Hillsborough or Pinellas, they should call their doctor, according to local health officials.
Those who don’t have a doctor in Hillsborough can call the University Area STD Clinic in Tampa.
How long should patients isolate?
Monkeypox patients should isolate at home until they no longer have a rash and a new layer of skin has formed, which could take up to a month.
If close contacts don’t have symptoms, they don’t need to quarantine, health officials say.
Monkeypox tests require a sample from a lesion. People exposed to the virus who don’t have a rash can’t be tested.
What vaccines are available?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has licensed two vaccines that can be used against the virus: ACAM2000 and Jynneos (also known as Imvamune or Imvanex). ACAM2000 isn’t widely distributed and can have serious side effects.
The federal government is sending Jynneos to states. The vaccine, which has a two-dose regimen, is available for free to adults. It can be administered before or after a monkeypox exposure.
The supply of Jynneos is limited nationally. Florida has received more than 36,000 doses from the federal government.
Metro Inclusive Health received 100 doses from the state last week, Johnsen said.
Who is eligible for a vaccine?
These groups are currently eligible: close contacts of infected individuals; lab and health care workers at a high risk of exposure; people who had multiple sexual partners in the past two weeks in an area with monkeypox cases; immunocompromised men who have sex with men with HIV who could have been exposed to the virus (those who have a CD4 white blood cell count below 200 per ml³); and men who have sex with men with HIV or a history of having sexually transmitted diseases who had a possible exposure to the virus.
If you want a vaccine, talk to your doctor or call one of the local health departments, Tolentino said.
Will monkeypox become endemic in the U.S.?
That remains unknown. The answer hinges on the public health response, which has been criticized as being too slow.
“It could be endemic for a long period of time,” said James Lawler, co-director of the Global Center for Health Security at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. “The most realistic scenario is it takes us a year to get this epidemic in the U.S. under control.”