What to know about monkeypox vaccines, symptoms and cases of VM

A month ago, the United States had less than 700 cases of monkeypox. Now the number of national cases has risen to nearly 9,000 and President Joe Biden has declared a national state of emergency over the virus.

Only four cases of monkeypox have been reported in West Virginia: two in Berkeley County, one in Kanawha County and, most recently, one in Hancock County. The state health official said last month that the virus poses an “extremely low threat” to residents of West Virginia.

That doesn’t mean West Virginians shouldn’t worry.

The virus is transmitted primarily through close contact and primarily affects men who have sex with men. But we shouldn’t assume things will stay that way, said Dr. Lee Smith, health officer with the Monongalia County Health Department.

“It can spread outside of high-risk people,” Smith said. “It’s not a panic situation. We’re not talking about the next pandemic, but it’s important to keep these things in mind. We need communities to help keep all of these things at bay.

What is monkey pox?

Monkeypox is endemic to West Africa. It was first transmitted to humans by wild animals.

Of the more than 30,000 cases in the current global outbreak, most have been reported in countries that have never had monkeypox. No deaths have been reported in the United States as a result of the current outbreak, but people have died in other countries, including Spain, Brazil and India.

A screenshot from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website showing the trend of monkeypox cases reported to the CDC over the past few weeks.

Typically, the first symptoms of monkeypox resemble a cold; they include pain, swollen lymph nodes, and high temperatures. A telltale rash occurs one to five days later, beginning as raised spots, which turn into small fluid-filled blisters. These eventually scab over and fall off.

Scientists know that people catch monkeypox by touching lesions of an infected person or objects they have touched. You can catch monkeypox by coughing and sneezing from someone, if they are very close to you, and the virus can also be airborne over short distances.

Although the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not consider monkeypox a sexually transmitted disease, the agency says it is still unclear whether the virus is spread via semen or vaginal secretions.

Monkeypox is almost six times less contagious than COVID-19. But the CDC says about one in 100 people who catch monkeypox die, which is about the same as the CDC’s estimated death rate for COVID-19.

Mortality rates from monkeypox may be higher in children under 8 years of age, pregnant or breastfeeding people, people with skin conditions such as eczema, and immunocompromised people, including people living with HIV or cancer.

Even if you don’t die from monkeypox, developing lesions can be incredibly painful. The virus can also lead to pneumonia, sepsis, or even blindness if your eyes are infected.

Can I get vaccinated against monkeypox?

Currently, only two groups of people can be vaccinated against monkeypox in West Virginia: close contacts of infected people (if they don’t have symptoms) and certain health care workers.

The World Health Organization recommends preventive vaccination of anyone at high risk of contracting monkeypox. West Virginia doesn’t, and couldn’t even if health officials wanted to, because there aren’t enough vaccines.

As of Aug. 9, West Virginia only had enough doses to fully vaccinate 513 people against monkeypox, according to a spokesperson for the state Department of Health and Human Resources.

But West Virginia is home to about 13,000 men who have sex with men, according to a 2016 study published by the CDC and Emory University. The DHHR said this is how it defines the population most at risk of contracting monkeypox.

The state sources vaccines from the CDC, which bases allocations on each state’s total case count and its population of men who have sex with men. But senior health officials have said monkeypox cases are likely underreported in other groups, criticizing posts that referred to the virus solely as a “gay disease”.

Local health departments must request vaccines from DHHR, which has the only state supply. As of August 9, all local health departments in the state had received only 40 doses of the vaccine in total.

The vaccine has two doses, with the second usually given one month after the first. Receiving your first dose of monkeypox vaccine within four days of exposure to an infected person can reduce your risk of getting sick.

However, a full immune response does not develop until 14 days after you receive your second injection. Until then, you can still get monkeypox, so you should always avoid close contact with infected people.

The state does not expect to receive more vaccines until October.

How can I be tested for monkeypox?

Although monkeypox is not the same, some lessons learned during the COVID pandemic have informed health officials’ responses to the virus.

Malcolm Lanham, director of community health for the Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department, said his department ordered a few of their own test kits when cases of monkeypox started growing.

If you think you have monkeypox, see a doctor or a public health clinic.

If a doctor thinks you have monkeypox, they should report the case to the local health department. The state epidemiologist usually must approve a monkeypox test, although local health departments can send samples to commercial labs, such as LabCorp.

If the test is approved, your doctor will work with DHHR and the local health department to send samples for testing to the West Virginia Office of Laboratory Services.

Results are usually available within 24 hours. If your test comes back positive for monkeypox, your local health department and DHHR will follow up on your close contacts. DHHR will also send samples to the CDC to confirm the case of monkeypox.

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