Countries in Europe and North America continue to report more cases of abekopperbut experts say the disease so far does not pose a serious risk to the public.
At least 17 infections of the rare disease have been confirmed in non-endemic areas such as the United States, Great Britain, Portugal, Sweden and Italy, and dozens of possible cases are under investigation in these nations as well as in Canada and Spain.
Most cases occur when humans encounter infected animals in countries where the virus is endemic – typically Central and Western Africa, as happened with the first case of the outbreak, reported in England on May 7 among a person who had recently traveled to Nigeria.
However, none of the remaining eight cases in the UK had a travel history and had no contact with the patient who had visited Nigeria, according to The UK Health Safety Agencywhich suggests that there is some degree of societal transfer.
Similarly, the first infection was registered in the United States in one grown man from Massachusetts who had recently traveled to Canada, and now at least 17 cases are being investigated by Canadian authorities.
Health experts stress that the risk to the public remains low and most people do not have to be immediately afraid of contracting the disease.
“It’s a virus in a very different class than COVID-19,” said Dr. Shira Doron, an infectious disease doctor and hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, told ABC News. “It lives predominantly in animal reservoirs, so it accidentally reaches humans and can cause occasional illness or relatively small outbreaks.”
Monkey pox is a rare disease caused by the monkey pox virus, which was first identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 1958 in monkeys kept for research.
The first human case was discovered in 1970 in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“It is important to note that this is not a new virus,” said Dr. John Brownstein, an epidemiologist at Boston Children’s Hospital and a contributor to ABC News. “This has been around for a long time. It’s mostly endemic in parts of West Africa, but you’ll occasionally see it in other parts of the world.”
Humans are typically infected by animals through a bite or a scratch or through the preparation and ingestion of contaminated bush meat.
The disease can also be spread from person to person via large respiratory droplets in the air, but they can not travel more than a few meters, so two people must have prolonged close contact.
“It is transmitted through large droplets that do not travel very far, or through contact with lesions themselves or touching someone with bedding or clothing or recent contact with lesions,” Doron said. “It’s not something you get without very close intimate contact, and therefore it does not tend to cause outbreaks.”
She added that this transmission path is different from COVID-19, which spreads through small aerosols that can hang in the air for several minutes.
“Aerosols are not subject to gravity, but large droplets, they are drawn to the ground,” Doron said. “Monkey pox is also not a disease transmitted in the asymptomatic phase, which is what made COVID such a formidable enemy.”
Monkey pox is generally a mild disease where the most common symptoms are fever, headache, fatigue and muscle aches.
Patients may develop rashes and lesions that often begin on the face before spreading to the rest of the body.
“It starts as spots, then small blisters that you will see with chickenpox, then pus-filled blisters and then they scrub over,” Doron explained. “It’s a long illness. It lasts a few weeks, but you can be contagious for several weeks and infect until the blisters burst over.”
ABC News confirmed on Thursday that the CDC is monitoring six Americans who were on the same plane as the British patient who tested positive after traveling to Nigeria.
“They will be followed by health officials for 21 days after their last possible contact with the sick traveler,” the CDC said in a statement. “None of the six have any symptoms of monkey pox and the risk of them is very low.”
Health officials said it is likely that more cases will show up either in the U.S. or in other countries, but that Americans should not be concerned.
“We will find more cases,” Brownstein said. “There is now increased public awareness and it is clear that there will be more clinicians who will be able to recognize the symptoms.”
He continued: “But so far there is no indication that this will have nearly the same global impact as COVID-19. The risk to the general public is low.”
ABC News’ Sony Salzman contributed to this report.