Last reviewed 23 May 2022

Mainly spread by wild animals in parts of west or central Africa, and first identified in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1970, monkeypox has suddenly appeared in 14 countries with, for the first time, the virus being found in people with no clear connection to the usual countries of origin.

However, according to the NHS, the chances of anyone being infected are extremely low if they have not recently travelled to west or central Africa or unless they have been in close contact with someone who has monkeypox (such as touching their skin or sharing bedding).

Symptoms

If someone is infected with monkeypox, it usually takes between five and 21 days for the following symptoms to appear:

  • a high temperature

  • a headache

  • muscle aches

  • backache

  • swollen glands

  • shivering (chills)

  • exhaustion.

Treatment

The illness is usually mild and most people recover in two to four weeks, so treatment tends to focus on relieving symptoms.

Vaccination against smallpox can be used for both pre- and post-exposure and is up to 85% effective in preventing monkeypox. People vaccinated against smallpox in childhood may experience a milder disease.

Although the disease does not spread easily, those showing symptoms are being told to isolate at home for up to 21 days and are strongly advised to avoid immunosuppressed people, pregnant women and children under 12, as they are more vulnerable to serious infections.

Situation in the UK

Dr Claire Dewsnap, president of the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV (BASHH), said: “The vast majority of identified cases are isolating at home and do not require hospital admission.”

At the time of writing, there were approximately 20 cases in the UK. One was reported to be a child in intensive care in London with the disease.

With infection being passed on through close contact with body fluids, infected ulcers and contaminated material such as towels and bedding, BASHH has said that the pattern of the outbreak suggests the virus is spreading primarily through sexual networks with almost all the UK cases presented to sexual health clinics.

According to the NHS: “Although monkeypox is rare, there are things you can do to reduce your risk of getting it. These include: washing your hands with soap and water regularly or using an alcohol-based hand sanitiser; and only eating meat that has been cooked thoroughly.”

Apart from avoiding close contact with people who are unwell and may have the infection, it advises not eating or touching meat from wild animals (bush meat) and not going near wild or stray animals, including dead animals.

Further details can be found in a World Health Organization (WHO) factsheet available here.

Cause for concern?

Experts say the UK is not on the brink of a national outbreak and, according to the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), the risk is low.

Professor Jonathan Ball, professor of molecular virology, University of Nottingham, said: “The fact that only one of the 50 contacts of the initial monkeypox-infected patient has been infected shows how poorly infectious the virus is. It is wrong to think that we are on the brink of a nationwide outbreak.”