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Athens News Matters: How Big of a Problem Could Monkeypox be?

Pox viruses, illustration
ROGER HARRIS/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRA/Getty Images/Science Photo Libra
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Science Photo Library RF
Pox virus, illustration. Pox viruses are oval shaped and have double-strand DNA. There are many types of Pox virus including Chickenpox, Monkeypox and Smallpox. Smallpox was eradicated in the 1970's. Infection occurs because of contact with contaminated animals or people and results in a rash or small bumps on the skin.

After a long three years of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, the idea of confronting monkeypox sounds like another remnant of 2020. To provide context on how concerned we should be over this virus is Professor John Drake from the UGA Odum School of Ecology and Director of the Center for the Ecology of Infectious Diseases. Welcome back to Athens News Matters.

John Drake
ecology.uga.edu
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John Drake is a distinguished research professor, Director of the Center for Ecology of Infectious Diseases, and the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the UGA Odum School of Ecology

This transcript has been edited for clarity

Alexia Ridley:
For those who are unfamiliar with monkeypox, can you explain what it is?

John Drake:
So, monkeypox is a virus. It's a virus that is primarily maintained in animal species in Africa and spills over occasionally from animal populations into humans, and it causes a disease that's a bit like smallpox or cowpox. It's related to those viruses. It's not as transmissible or as deadly as smallpox, but it can still be quite deadly.

Ridley:
And you say it's similar to other, sort of like smallpox or other pox disease. When we say a pox, what are we actually saying? What is that disease like?

Drake:
So, these are viruses that are in a family of viruses called the pox Verity, and in particular in the genus Orthopox virus and all of these viruses can cause eruptions on skin and mucous membranes, and so that's where the name pox comes from.

Ridley:
And we've had our first case in Georgia, and of course, as soon as you hear diseases like this and it comes to your area, your state, people start worrying about the possibility of them contracting the disease. How worried should people be about actually contracting monkeypox?

Drake:

I don't think that the general public needs to be terribly worried about monkeypox

So, I don't think that the general public needs to be terribly worried about monkeypox itself. The case that we have here in Georgia is part of a cluster of cases that we've seen in the last several months, kind of throughout the world, and epidemiologists are currently investigating to try and understand how it got into the human population, how it's spreading, and what the epidemiology of this recent outbreak has been. Well, the reason why I think people don't need to be terribly concerned is because it is at very, very low prevalence. It does not spread as quickly as for instance as SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. It does come from close contact with an infected person or an infected animal. And so of course, if a family member or another acquaintance is infected, you would want to keep your distance from that person. But the CDC, public health agencies, and other officials are doing their work to track down those cases when they happen and to ensure that people are-are treated well and take proper precautions.

Ridley:
You mentioned COVID, of course. When we talk about something like monkeypox, how does that compare to COVID and the likelihood of actually catching it or how it impacts us?

Drake:
So, one significant difference between COVID and-and monkeypox is that COVID happens really fast. It's a respiratory illness and a person can become infectious within a couple of days of first acquiring the-the virus. And of course, as we now know, a lot of cases of SARS-CoV-2 infection or asymptomatic and so can transmit the virus to other people even though you know the-the person who's transmitting doesn't know that they're unwell. Well, with monkeypox it is a little bit curious that it cropped up in so many places around the world at the same time, leading some to wonder whether or not there are undiagnosed cases out there. But it also moves much more slowly, and so its incubation time is slower, and the disease progression is slower, which gives officials more time to act and to intervene and interrupt transmission.

Ridley:
And can you tell us what's being done to address those cases of infection from monkeypox in the US?

Drake:
Sure, in the US and elsewhere around the world, epidemiologists and officials at the CDC and other government agencies are tracking down the cases that are observed. Cases are really quite easy to identify because the pox lesions are pretty diagnostic and of course there's widespread awareness right now about this. So, anybody who experiences those sort of symptoms would be very likely to seek care with a primary care physician or in a clinic, and in that case that individual would be identified right away and given proper treatment.

Ridley:
And finally, now that we've learned from the pandemic, the COVID pandemic, more about protecting public health, what can we do to prevent viruses like monkeypox from becoming major public health concerns?

Drake:
So, the first thing is we need to understand why new viruses emerge in the population. And there are actually a wide number of reasons that that occurs. But those occasions that bring the human population into contact with wild animals, especially animals that we don't have a long history of interacting with, whether this is because environmentally we're interfering with their habitat or because of climate change for instance. I think we need to be aware of these sort of larger background forces that are changing the contact patterns between people and animals. And if we can set up barriers to transmission at that stage, that's far and away the best way that we can prevent future pandemics. That said, a spillover of zoonotic pathogens, that is to say parasites and pathogens of wild animals will continue to happen, and the most important thing there is for our society to be on the alert to detect these incursions into the human population as soon as possible, and then to have a deliberate and coordinated response. And I think that that's something that we can do. We've learned from COVID-19 that we need to do it better, and many organizations I think are interested in doing it better the next time around.

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