Tracking monkeypox: Where the US outbreak stands, where it may be headed

More than 7,000 monkeypox cases have now been confirmed in the U.S., and as the outbreak continues to grow, health experts are cautioning that, if not contained, the virus may begin spreading among the broader population. 

The current outbreak has mostly been concentrated among men who have sex with men and their sexual networks, though anyone is at risk of contracting the disease from skin-to-skin contact or by touching fabrics and surfaces that have been used by someone with an active infection. 

"Stigma and discrimination can be as dangerous as any virus and can fuel the outbreak," World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, said during an update on the global outbreak in late July. "Anyone exposed can get monkeypox, which is why WHO recommends that countries take action to reduce the risk of transmission to other vulnerable groups, including children, pregnant women and those who are immunosuppressed."

There's been at least five confirmed pediatric cases in the U.S. 

"We're just starting to see a small number of secondary infections in women and children," Jason Zucker, MD, an infectious diseases specialist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York City, said during an Aug. 5 press briefing, adding that each of those cases involved close contact with someone who had tested positive for orthopoxvirus, which causes monkeypox infection. "Just like other diseases, there is no reason it can't spread to other communities via sexual or other close contact." 

If the outbreak isn't contained soon, the virus will likely begin spreading more broadly among the general public, according to Ted Ross, PhD, Cleveland Clinic's global director of vaccine development. 

"I think we're just at the tip of the iceberg right now," he told Becker's. "It won't be surprising to see young people, particularly those who are more likely to go to nightclubs and bars and have intimate contact more often" becoming infected if the outbreak continues to grow significantly. 

Monkeypox, unlike COVID-19, is what Dr. Ross calls a "self-limiting" disease, meaning one bout with infection "leads to life long immunity." 

This underscores the importance of vaccines in curbing this outbreak, though the Jynneos monkeypox vaccine remains in short supply. 

"If we get people vaccinated before they're infected, then they really will be protected against anyone who [they] might come into contact with," he said.

The U.S. on Aug. 4 declared the monkeypox outbreak a public health emergency, which is expected to support the nation in speeding up distribution and administration of the vaccine, but federal health officials have previously said they expect the shortage to last for months. 

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