Monkeypox United States

What is Monkeypox? What to Know as Illinois Reports 1st Probable Case

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As Illinois' first probable case of monkeypox is reported in a Chicago resident, what is the illness and how does it spread?

Officials have been on alert amid a rash of recent cases in several countries that typically don't experience monkeypox infections, including the U.S.

So what is monkeypox and how worried should you be? Here's what we know so far.

What is monkeypox?

Monkeypox is a rare, but potentially serious viral illness, which often begins with flu-like symptoms and swelling of the lymph nodes, and progresses to a rash on the face and body, health experts said. It was first observed in Africa in 1970, and is usually found in western and central portions of the continent.

The virus comes from the same family as smallpox.

"It does not come from monkeys. That's just what it was initially detected in and it's a virus that is not related to the COVID virus," Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said. "It's a completely different family. One of the reasons why there's attention to it is it's in the same family that the smallpox virus. We don't have smallpox anymore. We eradicated but it's in that family."

How is it spread?

CDPH said person-to-person transmission is possible through "close physical contact with monkeypox sores, items that have been contaminated with fluids or sores (clothing, bedding, etc.), or through respiratory droplets following prolonged face-to-face 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.”

Where have cases been confirmed?

The CDC is on alert after cases of the virus were reported in several countries that typically do not report monkeypox cases, including the U.S.

As of Thursday, the CDC has reported 19 confirmed cases across multiple states including California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, New York, Utah, Virginia, and Washington.

Illinois reported its first probable case in a Chicago resident Thursday.

The World Health Organization has also been urging individuals to be on the look out after nearly 200 confirmed or suspected cases were reported in at least 12 western countries. According to officials, the majority of those cases have occurred in Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom.

What do we know about the Chicago case?

The Chicago case was reported in a man who recently traveled to Europe, according to both the city's and Illinois' health departments. The man was not hospitalized and is in isolation at home in "good condition," officials said.

Tests were first conducted Wednesday at an Illinois Department of Public Health lab, but the results are still pending at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, officials said.

"Based on initial epidemiologic characteristics and the positive orthopoxvirus result at IDPH, health officials consider this a probable monkeypox infection," the health agencies stated.

Health officials said they are working to identify anyone who may have been exposed while the Chicago resident was contagious, though they said the "case remains isolated and at this time there is no indication there is a great risk of extensive local spread of the virus." They added the virus does not spread as easily as COVID-19.

What symptoms should you watch for?

Virus symptoms range from fever, aches and rashes all over the body.

"Suspected cases may present with early flu-like symptoms and progress to lesions that may begin on one site on the body and spread to other parts," the Chicago Department of Public Health stated.

Dr. Irfan Hafiz, an infectious disease specialist with Northwestern Medicine’s McHenry and Huntley Hospitals, said the virus causes symptoms that are similar to several maladies, including chickenpox or smallpox.

“It can, to the layperson, look like chickenpox or warts,” he said. “But these (sores) tend to be in exposed areas.”

Health experts also said the illness can be confused with a sexually transmitted infection like syphilis or herpes, or with varicella zoster virus.

Federal health officials are urging doctors in the U.S. to "consider a diagnosis of monkeypox in people who present with a consistent rash, especially if they meet any of the following criteria:

  • Had contact with someone who had a rash that looks like monkeypox or someone who was diagnosed with confirmed or probable monkeypox
  • Had skin-to-skin-contact with someone in a social network experiencing monkeypox activity; this includes men who have sex with men who meet partners through an online website, digital application (app), or social event (e.g., a bar or party)
  • Traveled outside the US to a country with confirmed cases of monkeypox or where monkeypox activity has been ongoing
  • Had contact with a dead or live wild animal or exotic pet that exists only in Africa or used a product derived from such animals (e.g., game meat, creams, lotions, powders, etc.)

What makes the recent cases unique?

“What makes this a little different is the number of cases, and the countries that are affected by this,” Hafiz said.

Chicago's top doctor echoed that sentiment last week.

"Usually, in a normal year, we will see a few cases mostly in Western Africa that are related to animals," Arwady said. "There are animals that can carry it and we'll see, you know, a few dozen cases that people can get infected just from just from being in contact with animals. The reason there's been more attention is that at this point, there's been somewhere between 100 cases that have been identified that are not connected to the typical way that we see monkeypox."

The CDC said 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.

We already have vaccines and treatments approved for monkeypox

How worried should you be?

The virus is rarely lethal, experts said.

"We want to make sure we understand it so it's rare, but it is potentially serious," Arwady said.

Infections typically last between two and four weeks, CDPH said.

Health officials said anyone with a "new or unexplained rash, sores, or symptoms, or have a confirmed exposure" should visit their healthcare provider and "avoid sex or being intimate with anyone until they have been seen."

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