The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is on alert after cases of a virus known as monkeypox were reported in several countries, including one confirmed case and four more likely cases in the United States.
With those revelations, experts are offering tips and advice on how the virus spreads, and the safety steps that residents can take to avoid being infected.
The rare, but potentially serious, illness was first observed in Africa in 1970, and is usually found in the west and central portions of the continent.
The virus comes from the same family as smallpox, and the World Health Organization is urging individuals to be on the look out after nearly 200 confirmed or suspected cases were reported in at least 12 western countries.
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According to officials, the majority of those cases have occurred in Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom.
“What makes this a little different is the number of cases, and the countries that are affected by this,” Dr. Irfan Hafiz of Northwestern Medicine’s McHenry and Huntley Hospitals, said.
Hafiz, an infectious disease specialist, says that the virus causes symptoms that are similar to several maladies, including chickenpox or smallpox.
“It can, to the layperson, look like chickenpox or wars,” he said. “But these (sores) tend to be in exposed areas.”
The virus is rarely lethal, with symptoms ranging from fever, aches and rashes all over the body.
A man who recently returned from Canada has been diagnosed with the virus in Massachusetts, while CDC officials suspect that four other infections in individuals in New York, Florida and Utah.
“They do seem to have some travel involved, but the cases originated independently of each other,” Hafiz said.
The CDC says that “cases include people who self-identify as men who have had sex with men,” but emphasized that anyone can contract the illness through prolonged contact.
“It’s not just your casual handshake,” Hafiz said. “(Contact must be) longer, more pronounced. It is not technically a sexually transmitted disease, but it involves close contact.”
“It takes prolonged (contact), not minutes,” NBC News Medical Contributor Dr. Kavita Patel added. “(It can also involve) body fluids or lesions.”
Even though the virus may present frightening symptoms, serious illness is generally rare, with patients typically recovering in 2-to-4 weeks. There is also a vaccine for the virus.
“There’s a variation of the smallpox vaccine for monkeypox, and we know it to be highly effective,” Hafiz said.
The company that makes the monkeypox vaccine says that the United States currently has 1.4 million doses of the treatment, but no plans are currently in place for inoculation campaigns.