Endemic to Central and West Africa, monkeypox has been making headlines in Europe and the United States. An initially small outbreak of the poxvirus—a relative of the much deadlier smallpox—has been rippling through countries including Spain, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Canada. A case in Massachusetts was confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week and, at the time of this writing, additional cases have been identified elsewhere in the United States.
The first human case of monkeypox, so named because it was first discovered in a colony of research monkeys, was diagnosed in 1970 in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Since then, limited cases have been seen outside Africa, typically owing to global travel from places in Africa where monkeypox is endemic.
The disease is known for its characteristic lesions, but generally starts with flu-like symptoms like fever, fatigue, and body aches. A rash can emerge a few days after the onset of fever, with lesions progressing through various stages before scabbing over and resolving in roughly two weeks. It’s transmitted by close contact with infected people or their clothing or bedding, entering through broken skin, mucous membranes, or the respiratory tract. Most people recover, though the disease is considered to have a fatality rate between 3 and 10%.
Penn Today spoke with researchers Gary Cohen and Robert Ricciardi of the School of Dental Medicine and Stuart Isaacs of the Perelman School of Medicine, who have collaborated for decades on research related to developing vaccines and therapeutics for poxviruses. They weigh in on what to look out for in the latest outbreak, how governments and clinicians are preparing, and why monkeypox is nothing like COVID-19.
Gary H. Cohen is professor of microbiology in the Department of Basic & Translational Sciences in the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine.
Stuart Isaacs is an associate professor of medicine (infectious diseases) in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine and serves as associate dean for animal research.
Robert P. Ricciardi is professor and chair of the Department of Basic & Translational Sciences in Penn Dental Medicine