While there have been no reported cases of monkeypox in Mzansi, this is no reason to let our guards down, says the National Institute of Communicable diseases (NICD). Monkeypox is a virus that causes pus-filled blisters, and has been detected in several countries, including the United States, Canada, Australia and some European countries.
According to the NICD, while the virus has gripped other parts of the world, this is does not mean we should not be wary. “The implications for South Africa are that the risk of importation of monkeypox is a reality as lessons learnt from Covid-19 have illustrated that outbreaks in another part of the world can fast become a global concern.”
“The WHO have not recommended any travel restrictions and are working with the affected countries to limit transmission and determine sources of exposure,” it said in its FAQ about monkeypox.
The NICD is on high alert.
“For anybody entering South Africa, any illness during travel or upon return from an endemic area should be reported to a healthcare professional, including information about all recent travel, immunisation history and contact with any known cases.”
Here’s what you should know
According to Dr Jantjie Taljaard, an infectious diseases expert at Tygerberg Academic Hospital, monkeypox is a *zoonotic disease. Monkeypox spreads when someone comes into close contact with another person, animal or material infected with the virus.
It is endemic in remote parts of Central and West Africa, and was first detected in captive monkeys in 1958. The first human case was recorded in 1970.
Monkeypox endemic countries include Benin, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Nigeria, the Republic of the Congo, Sierra Leone, and South Sudan.
“Monkeypox originates from rodents in places like the forest,” says Taljaard. “So, it’s actually what we call a zoonotic disease; it comes from other animals. And it can affect humans, and also can affect monkeys as well.”
The virus can enter the body through broken skin, the respiratory tract or through the eyes, nose and mouth.
“[It looks very much like] chickenpox, or the old smallpox. And this is caused by a virus that is very closely related to the smallpox virus,” he says.
Meanwhile, UNAIDS has expressed concern that some public commentary on monkeypox has used language and imagery that have reinforced homophobic and racist stereotypes.
This, it says, has led to the stigmatisation of LGBTI and black people. Matthew Kavanagh, the deputy executive director of UNAIDS, says that lessons from the Aids response show that stigma and blame directed at certain groups of people can rapidly undermine an outbreak response.
“Experience shows that stigmatising the rhetoric can quickly disable evidence-based response by stoking cycles of fear, driving people away from health services, impeding efforts to identify cases, and encouraging ineffective, punitive measures. We appreciate the LGBTI community for having led the way on raising awareness and we reiterate that this disease can affect anyone.”
Talijaard says that the link between gay people and monkeypox is a bit of a surprise. Monkeypox is not sexually transmitted, he says.
“The thinking at the moment is that, just because the first crisis has risen, the influence of people travelling and getting infected, and many of these people being diagnosed, were at gay pride events and festivals, and that’s where people probably have very close contact with each other.”
Symptoms and treatment
While there are no specific treatments available for monkeypox infection, outbreaks can be controlled, says Taljaard. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the smallpox vaccine is at least 85% effective against the monkeypox virus.
“Cases in Central West Africa are usually easily controlled by basic measures of general hygiene.”
Some of the monkeypox symptoms include fever, and sometimes enlarged lymph nodes and skin lesions. “Then you should consider going to the doctor and getting tested,” Taljaard advises.