2 June 2022

What is monkeypox and should we be worried?

The sudden appearance of the monkeypox virus in multiple countries outside West Africa indicates the virus has been spreading undetected for some time, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

As of Wednesday 1 June, there were 550 monkeypox cases across 30 countries.

What is monkeypox?

Monkeypox is a viral zoonotic disease (zoonotic means it can pass between animals and humans).

Usually it causes fever, aches, swollen lymph nodes and a rash, which often appears as small blisters or pustules.

The virus is similar to smallpox but far less severe and less contagious. Smallpox was declared eradicated in 1980.

Human monkeypox was first identified in humans in 1970 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Since then, it has become endemic in West Africa and has largely been confined to the region.

How does it spread?

Monkeypox does not spread easily between people and is far less contagious than Covid-19. However, it can spread through person-to-person contact.

The WHO said the outbreak in Europe is being transmitted through social networks connected largely through sexual activity, primarily involving men who have sex with men.

It can also be spread through contact with clothing or bedding used by an infected person, through respiratory droplets or by direct contact with the monkeypox skin lesions.

People who contract monkeypox are contagious from the time they first develop symptoms until the rash lesions crust, dry or fall off.

Is there a vaccine?

Yes, but we don’t have any in New Zealand yet.

The Ministry of Health (MoH) said there is no vaccine specifically for monkeypox, though some smallpox vaccines can provide protection against the virus.

It has assessed the older smallpox vaccine that was used in New Zealand until 1980 and decided it is not suitable to prevent monkeypox.

Some countries, including Australia, have a newer, second-generation smallpox vaccine that is being offered to close contacts at high risk of infection.

A third-generation vaccine was approved for use in the US in 2019 to prevent monkeypox, but there are limited international supplies. It is currently being used in the UK.

It should be noted, however, that monkeypox cases are usually mild and those infected recover within a few weeks.

Could it come to New Zealand?

The MoH said there are no confirmed or reported cases of monkeypox here, but it is monitoring the outbreak overseas.

It’s possible a case will be imported but the current risk to New Zealand is assessed as low.

What happens if I get it?

As with Covid, you would need to isolate from others. You should also contact your GP or local health provider.

The rash usually appears after a few days, starting on the face then spreading to other body parts, including the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. Like with chickenpox, the number of lesions can vary from a few to thousands, before turning into scabs that fall off.

Is there a test for monkeypox?

The MoH said a PCR test for the virus will be available soon, but until then any suspected cases will be sampled and sent to an Australian laboratory, where a validated PCR test is available. Also, ESR can provide provisional results.

What is the best way to prevent it?

Avoid close contact with people with suspected or confirmed monkeypox and do not share clothing or bedding.

As with Covid, practise good hand hygiene – wash your hands with soap and water and dry them thoroughly, or use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser.

More information can be found on the Ministry of Health website.

Member comments

Get access to comment

B A S.
04 Jun 2022
Yet another bug

but this one can pass me by as I paid $200 for a shingles jab.

Aimee M.
04 Jun 2022
Not the same!

The shingles vaccination will have no efficacy on Monkey Pox