By: Ana Altchek, Follow South Jersey Intern
SOUTH JERSEY – Despite rising numbers of COVID, and a potential new variant on its way that the vaccine doesn’t protect against, concern has shifted towards the latest infectious disease, called monkeypox. The virus carries similar symptoms as smallpox, but tends to present itself as a less severe version.
Although originally discovered in 1958, the latest outbreak of monkeypox began a few weeks ago and has begun to spread around the world. As of last week, the CDC officially confirmed nine cases in the United States in seven states, including Massachusetts, Florida, Utah, Washington, California, Virginia and New York. While the outbreak continues to be investigated, the CDC warns the country that more cases are expected to show up.
According to Dr. Cindy Hou, an Infection Control Officer and Medical Director of Research for Jefferson Health New Jersey, as well as board member for NJ’s Antimicrobial Stewardship Committee, Infection Control Committee, Infection Prevention Task Force, and Sepsis on the Floors Task Force, the fact that the source of this current outbreak is unknown, is concerning. Since the virus initially originated in Nigeria and this spread seems unrelated to travel in the area, the virus could continue to spread internationally.
Even though this virus isn’t completely new, it still poses some complexity to researchers because there are differing elements this time around. Since the incubation period can take up to 21 days and the duration of the virus lasts about two weeks, Hou says she estimates that it will take several months to determine where it came from and what kind of strain it is. It’s also important to factor that not every lab has the ability to find out where it came from, which means they will have to send specimens which could take two to three weeks to come out with concrete information.
With that said, Hou says that despite these challenges, the response to the current outbreak was positive. It took about six days to discover that the first case was monkeypox. Now that medical professionals know that it is spreading, they can take the proper initiative to find new cases and know to be on the lookout if patients with symptoms come in.
Despite it being less contagious than other viruses though, Hou says it’s crucial for medical professionals to stay well educated by constantly checking resources. In addition to CDC reports and public webinars, the NJ Department of Health also provides local updates and information, and WHO also tracks events globally, which can help provide insight on the level of spread worldwide.
Most importantly, it’s important to look at the clinical science of symptoms, Hou says. If people don’t know the symptoms of a disease, they don’t know what to look out for. Thus, it’s important to stay alert for breaking news and regularly track medical sites for new updates.
In terms of the general public, Hou says that although this disease isn’t as readily catchable as other viruses, such as COVID, it’s always important to stay aware about how it spreads. In the past, medical professionals may have dismissed rashes, especially if it occurs with cold symptoms. In the COVID era though, doctors are more aware and alert of the potential of other diseases and viruses popping up unexpectedly. They also are more open to possibilities outside the box because of the different symptoms COVID has demonstrated overtime.
When determining whether someone is at risk for monkeypox now, Hou says the association at the end will most likely have to do with mode of transmission of contact. Athough there seems to be a correlation between bisexual or homosexual men and the current outbreak, Hou notes that this might be due to spread between skin to skin contact, rather than sexually transmitted.
“We can’t be mopic and narrow minded about the fact that this has been occurring through certain populations because once you do that, you lose sight of the fact that everyone can get monkeypox,” Hou says. “So when you do contact tracing, it’s really helpful to protect everyone.”
Even though monkeypox is spreading in conjunction with the ongoing COVID pandemic, and the rise of the BA.2 variant, Hou says she does not feel particularly concerned about the monkeypox outbreak. Infact, she thinks that COVID prepares doctors and medical professionals to be on the lookout for outbreaks like this and it currently does not pose a threat to the public health system.
“This will be much smaller in depth and distribution than the overwhelming response that was placed on the public health system as a whole during the COVID pandemic.” Hou says.
Hou notes that now that the public is used to taking protective preventative measures against infectious diseases, like social distancing, isolating, and wearing masks, How does not think that this outbreak will introduce anything beyond the limits of what the public has already seen.
When it comes to the future of infectious disease though, the last couple of years have demonstrated that the potential for new and foreign viruses will always exist. As long as people travel, there will always be the possibility for someone to bring back an unknown bacteria or virus back to the U.S.. With constantly evolving technologies and collaboration on a global scale though, the future of handling new diseases looks promising. COVID made a new space for an international network of disease fighting and control, which will benefit the world in future situations.
With more institutions and organizations on the lookout for infectious diseases, prevention will be more effective than ever. Hou notes that COVID changed the medical system for the better, with doctors, nurses, and social workers coming to aid people all over the world and prevent infection in all kinds of settings. With this new knowledge, Hou has an optimistic outlook for the future and confidence in the healthcare system. While there is always room for improvement, the world is more prepared than ever to deal with the unexpected and the unknown.
“As an infectious disease doctor, this is what I look for – to find these patients and protect the public, ” Hou says.
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