Monkeypox: What is it and should Malaysians be worried about the disease?
In the wake of a global crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic, many are still on high alert about any potential viral outbreaks, especially with international borders gradually opening up again. Recently, news of a disease known as “monkeypox” has been making headlines around the world, sparking concern after the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared alert against the disease.
As with any other health concern, however, the best thing you can do to keep you and your loved ones safe is to avoid unnecessary panic and stay informed. With that in mind, here’s what you need to know about monkeypox.
What is monkeypox?
According to the Health Ministry of Malaysia, monkeypox is a rare zoonotic viral disease that can spread from animals to humans, and also between people. It is caused by an infection with the monkeypox virus, which belongs to the Orthopoxvirus genus that also includes variola virus (which causes smallpox), vaccinia virus (used in the smallpox vaccine), and cowpox virus.
Monkeypox was first discovered in 1958 when two outbreaks of a pox-like disease occurred in colonies of monkeys kept for research. Ironically, the name is a bit of a misnomer now as the suspected main carriers of the virus are not monkeys but smaller animals such as rodents.
What are the symptoms of monkeypox?
The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that the incubation period (time from infection to symptoms) for monkeypox is usually between one to two weeks but can also range from five to 21 days. In humans, the disease usually begins with the following symptoms:
- Muscle aches
- Swollen lymph nodes
After one to three days (or sometimes longer), the patient will develop a rash, often beginning on the face then spreading to other parts of the body. The lesions will progress through the following stages before falling off:
The WHO reports that in most cases of monkeypox, symptoms typically go away on their own within a few weeks. However, newborns, children, and people with underlying immune deficiencies may be at risk of more serious symptoms and possibly death from monkeypox. Generally though, the mortality rate is low—at roughly three to six per cent.
Where has monkeypox been detected?
Monkeypox is commonly found in tropical rainforest areas in Central and West Africa, with Nigeria reporting about 3,000 cases a year. The first ever European case was detected recently on 7 May in an individual who returned to England from Nigeria.
Since then, at least 15 countries have reported confirmed cases of monkeypox, namely Austria, Australia, Canada, Denmark, United States, Israel, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Slovenia, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. More than 160 cases have been identified across these countries in total, with the majority being in Europe.
Is monkeypox detected in Malaysia?
As of the time of writing, there have been no detected cases in Malaysia. Malaysia’s Director-General of Health Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah said that the risk of monkeypox spreading to Malaysia is low unless there is a history of contact with infected animals or direct contact with infected patients. Nevertheless, the ministry will be monitoring the progress of monkeypox cases based on reports from the WHO, as well as carrying out surveillance on suspected cases of viral zoonosis at all the country's international entry points.
"The ministry is also working closely with the Malaysian Quarantine and Inspection Services Department (MAQIS) and Perhilitan to monitor the development of the monkeypox situation among the wildlife, including those imported from the African and European continents," he added in a statement.
With that said, he advises travellers from Malaysia who are keen to visit Central and West Africa or any other nations with monkeypox cases to remain vigilant and take precautionary measures.
How do you prevent monkeypox?
Monkeypox can be transmitted when a person comes into contact with the virus from an animal, human, or materials contaminated with the virus. It may enter the body through lesions; bodily fluids (such as mucous from the eyes, nose, or mouth); or the respiratory tract. Human-to-human transmissions are considered rare, based on past data.
Although there isn't a specific vaccine for monkeypox, data from the WHO shows that vaccines that were used to eradicate smallpox are up to 85 per cent effective against monkeypox. However, smallpox vaccines were discontinued in the early 1970s after the disease was eradicated.
For those who are travelling to places that have reported cases, here are the preventive measures recommended by the CDC:
- Practise good hygiene by washing or sanitising your hands often
- Avoid touching the blood of the infected and anything that has been contaminated by their bodily fluid, like dirty clothes used by the infected
- Avoid touching wild animals or eating their meat
- Avoid sharing bedding or towels with people who are unwell and may have monkeypox
What should you do if you develop symptoms?
There is no medicine to prevent monkeypox, but the symptoms will heal on their own within one to four weeks. If you have developed symptoms after travelling to countries with reported cases, the Health Ministry advises you to follow these instructions:
- Get help right away from a nearby health facility
- Inform a doctor about your travels
- Stay distanced from any contacts and individuals
- Self-quarantine for at least 21 days to make sure the rashes are gone
For more information on monkeypox, read this list of FAQs by the Health Ministry.
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