What is monkeypox and why is it spreading?

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that between April and June 2022, 98% of the infections in 16 countries were in men who have sex with men, but it’s not clear why this is the case. It could just be coincidence – once a disease is introduced to a community, it tends to spread within that community. And there is no evidence that monkeypox passes any faster through a population of men who have sex with men than any other group. Nor is there any evidence that it is more infectious to men than women.

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“We don’t know if the virus can spread specifically through sexual transmission routes, such as through vaginal secretions or semen, but it seems to be that intimate contact is promoting the spread,” says Barron.

Although DNA from the monkeypox virus has been detected in Semen by researchers, it does not necessarily mean that this is how it is spreading. The monkeypox virus is a packet of genetic information encased in an envelope of proteins and a membrane. It requires all these components to be in working order if it is to infect cells, and although viral DNA can be detected in semen, the virus itself may not be viable and capable of infection.

How dangerous is monkeypox?

Another important thing you need to know about monkeypox is that it is deeply unpleasant. The mortality rate of the current strain is around 1% and, at the time of writing, there have been three deaths reported in the outbreaks outside Africa, and five deaths in African countries where the disease is endemic, since the beginning of the year.

Compared to the Central African strain of the monkeypox virus, the West African version is generally associated with milder disease and fewer deaths.

But even if the chances of dying are relatively low, patients with monkeypox have reported how painful and debilitating it is.

“It’s long, it’s nasty and you don’t want to get it,” says Barron. “People will feel flu-like symptoms in the beginning, with fever, headache, stuff like that, but as the disease progresses you get a multi-stage rash, lesions can develop in your mouth, your feet and genital region and these develop into pus-filled blisters.”

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