Monkeypox was first discovered in laboratory monkeys in 1958. Further testing found evidence of monkeypox infection in several African rodent species.
In 1970, the first human cases were confirmed in remote regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, spread through close contact with infected animals.
The first large-scale outbreak occurred in 1996 and 1997 and involved a few hundred cases, most individuals under 16.
The Monkeypox Outbreak of 2003
The first known cases of monkeypox infection in humans outside of African regions occurred in 2003.
Investigators concluded that the spread happened through a shipment of exotic animals from Ghana to Texas. Of the 800 small mammals shipped, 14 were infected with monkeypox. Then, the infected animals were in close contact with prairie dogs at a vendor facility in Illinois.
In all 47 confirmed or probable cases in the US, the person had become ill after having contact with an infected pet prairie dog. There didn’t appear to be any instances of person-to-person spread.
How Was This Monkeypox Outbreak Contained?
The CDC and other public health organizations, working closely with the FDA, the Department of Agriculture, and other agencies, we’re able to contain the outbreak effectively.
They did this by:
- expanding access to laboratory testing
- distributing smallpox vaccines and treatments (which also work for monkeypox)
- developing clear guidelines for patients, healthcare providers, veterinarians, and animal handlers
- tracking potentially infected animals
- investigation of potential human cases
- initiating an embargo on the importation, transportation, sale, and release into the environment of prairie dogs and other rodents
How Is The 2022 Outbreak Different?
Despite the ongoing endemic of monkeypox in some parts of Africa (due to inequitable access to healthcare resources and global vaccine supplies), this current outbreak does not appear to have any known links to those regions.
Additionally, the virus is now spreading primarily through human-to-human contact. Through direct contact with infected rashes or fluids (or items that touched their rash), the virus can be passed on to others. Monkeypox is not considered a sexually transmitted disease, but it seems that much of the current spread may be linked to the intimate close contact between sexual partners.
Fifty countries in five different regions (Europe, Africa, the Americas, Eastern Mediterranean, and Western Pacific) have reported cases to the WHO, with a total of 3413 laboratory-confirmed cases and one death as of June 22, 2022.
The risk to the general public is still considered low, but measures are being implemented to reduce the spread as quickly as possible.
In the US, the White House announced on June 28 a large deployment of monkeypox vaccines. Starting with higher risk populations, 296,000 doses are set to be distributed in the following weeks, with 1.6 million doses becoming available in the coming months. This, along with increased testing capabilities and public awareness, should help to bring this outbreak under control.
If you develop a rash or have been around someone who is confirmed or potentially sick with monkeypox, call your primary care physician or local hospital as soon as possible.