Monkeypox symptoms, vaccines and everything you need to know

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There is a lot of news about monkeypox right now and some people might be freaking out and others might have their hands over their ears. The first one documented cases in the UK were in May 2022, so we are still learning about the virus, its severity, mode of transmission, effects and who is most at risk. So don’t panic, and don’t run away, here’s what you need to know, in a fresh and informative guide.

What is monkey pox?

Monkeypox is a virus that was originally discovered in 1958, in monkeys. There have been epidemics in central and western Africa in recent years, but these are cases where outbreaks have spread from animals to humans. The reason it’s in the news now is that monkeypox is acquired through human-to-human contact, which until now hasn’t been typical. Outbreaks occur all over the world, but particularly in the UK, Europe, USA and Canada.

The virus has only infected a relatively small number of people. Great Britain has one of the largest outbreaks and we still have a total case count of less than 3,000 since reporting began in May. In the USA. it is less than 5,000 at the time of writing. So being sensitive and informed is the way to go. It’s just good to be aware of the signs and symptoms and what to do to contain the outbreak.

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Currently it appears to primarily affect gay and bisexual men and men who have sex with men (GBMSM). So it affects the networks of people who have sex with each other (and possibly the people they might be living with). Thus, sexual health services are aimed at sexually active gay and bisexual men, especially those who have had a new sexual partner recently, in geographic areas (or locations) where monkeypox is more prevalent. It is recommended to protect the network from people who are currently most susceptible to contracting the virus.

Sidenote: It’s not homophobic or biphobic for health agencies and educators to share this information and target gay and bi men. To ignore who is currently affected by the virus and to not allocate these resources appropriately would be homophobic and biphobic. The part of the AIDS crisis that was homo/biphobic was Governments ignoring the virus for so long, then when they (and the right press) eventually started paying attention, blaming gay and bi men and their behavior for causing the disease.

In the the largest study yet, of the current outbreak, the authors write: “[a]Although the current epidemic disproportionately affects gay or bisexual men and other men who have sex with men… [i]It can affect anyone. We identified nine heterosexual men with monkeypox. The may also an under-reporting of symptoms for people who have less contact with sexual health services in general. So it only makes sense that we are educated about monkeypox and also educated ourselves on what to look out for.

Signs of monkeypox

Historically, the types of symptoms to look out for have been:

  • Fever

  • Intense headaches

  • Swollen lymph nodes (or glands) (for example, in the neck or groin)

  • Back ache

  • Muscle aches

  • Lack of energy

  • Rashes on the face that may spread to the hands, mouth, genitals, or anus

  • Followed by blisters that fill, dry up and fall off

Most of the time it is not a serious virus and people usually recover on their own in two to four weeks. However, the symptoms are not pleasant and can sometimes require hospitalization to treat the painful effects. Historically, there have been deaths from monkeypox, but this outbreak appears to be milder. We have a smallpox vaccine that would work for this and is currently being rolled out to the people who need it most.

In this epidemic, the latest searches suggests that blisters and rashes are the most common symptom. These are mostly around or on the genital area and around the anus as well. They are also found inside the anus, in the mouth, and at the back of the throat. There may be a few of these blisters, rashes or sores, but often there is only one.
Affected individuals may also experience pain in the rectum and/or a sore throat.

How is it transmitted?

Public health officials believe it is spread through close personal contact rather than sexual fluids (although this is not yet certain). Thus, any type of sexual or intimate contact can put a person at risk of catching it, even if they are wearing a condom.

Historically, we know that monkeypox is not easily transmitted between people, but it can be spread by:

  • Close skin contact with a person having an outbreak

  • Sharing towels or bedding with someone who has an outbreak

  • Breathing in droplets from a person with an outbreak.

So, as you can see, most types of in-person sex involve these things.

The vast majority of people (95%) who have contracted monkeypox think they contracted it through having sex. Where symptoms occur suggests that sexual activities such as oral and anal sex may be the route by which the virus enters the body. Since blisters and rashes can appear on the mouth, hands, legs and body, this means that other forms of non-penetrative sex (kissing, handjobs, grinding, fucking between the legs) can also involve some risk.

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We don’t know if it’s acquired through sexual fluids (eg, semen), but it seems likely that it’s acquired through exposure to a blister, rash, or wound. There are some similarities between the signs of monkeypox and the signs of other STIs. The latest research suggests that some people with monkeypox have also contracted an STI.

What to do if you have symptoms of monkeypox

If you’ve had any of these symptoms, it’s best to contact a local sexual health service. In the UK you can call the NHS on 111, or you can call your doctor or sexual health service. The general advice seems to be “call us first, don’t come until we ask you”. In the United States, the CDC contains information on monkeypox.

If you have mild symptoms, you may simply be advised to stay home and self-isolate until you are no longer contagious. This usually means waiting until the blisters are gone and healing, but it’s important to get your doctor’s advice on this. For more severe symptoms you may be prescribed medication to help relieve the pain and in some cases this may require a visit to hospital. You may also be offered a vaccine.

In the UK, all treatments are free and confidential. A key part of the UK’s response to this virus outbreak is to do what is known as ‘contact tracing’ where staff at these clinics will try to get in touch with anyone who has had close contact with an infected person. Like many other services in the UK, sexual health services have been heavily affected by budget cuts and reorganizations over the past 12 years.

Safe sex

The safest thing to do is to avoid sex (or close intimate contact) with people if you have symptoms. It’s just good to try talking with sexual partners to find out if you or they have had any of these symptoms recently, before having sex.

Keep in mind that this is still quite rare, but it’s just a matter of being reasonable. You can just send a simple text message with a screenshot of the symptoms and say “hey, just to let you know, I haven’t had any lately, have you?”

If you are in one of the social networks of people most affected by the virus, it is even more important to do so. Even among active gay and bisexual men, it’s still not very common but it is wise to be vigilant. If you are hosting events, you can ask people not to come if they have symptoms of monkeypox. Just as we do if we suspect we might have covid symptoms too. If you’re offered a vaccine, it’s probably a good idea to accept it.

The kind of things that could prevent STI (like condoms and non-penetrative sex) may not be as effective against monkeypox, but they can’t hurt. We still don’t know enough about how it is transmitted, but these steps may offer some protection.

These are just the kind of precautions we could all take all the time too. Safer sex isn’t just about STI, but all the diseases and other damages that we can cause. So let’s be reasonable and communicate with each other. There are more tips on how to talk about safe sex here.

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