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How to protect against the Monkeypox virus


The number of monkeypox cases reported in the U.S. has climbed above 5,000, spread across 47 states. Authorities are rolling out some 800,000 doses of a vaccine to prevent the spread of the virus. But some places are running out of the vaccine. New York City and state and the city of San Francisco have issued emergency declarations to better mobilize resources. While most of the messaging has been directed towards gay and bisexual men, no one is immune to monkeypox. We're joined now by Dr. Wafaa El-Sadr for an overview of the virus and the government's response to it. She's a professor of epidemiology and medicine at Columbia University and leads the New York City Pandemic Response Institute. Welcome.

WAFAA EL-SADR: Thank you.

RASCOE: I'm wondering if you can just give us a bit of a primer on monkeypox. What is it, and why is this current outbreak so concerning?

EL-SADR: Well, monkeypox is a virus that was identified several decades ago. But so far, it has largely been detected and identified in several countries in western and central Africa. Apart from that, they've been very small, discrete outbreaks that have been reported elsewhere. But I think what distinguishes this current outbreak is that it's happening in several countries at the same time and also the large numbers of people who have been infected.

RASCOE: Can you talk a bit about how monkeypox is spreading from person to person because it's not considered a sexually transmitted disease, right? But there has been this focus on gay and bisexual men, which has led some people to feel like, well, this has nothing to do with me. But that's not the case, right?

EL-SADR: Yes, that is not the case. What we know thus far is that this virus is largely transmitted by close contact. And by that, we mean close skin-to-skin contact.

RASCOE: So what symptoms should the public be on the lookout for?

EL-SADR: When it has been reported from countries in African continent, it's usually presented with fever, aches, fatigue, swollen lymph nodes. And then that was followed by rash - a distinctive rash that can appear anywhere over the body and that kind of appears as a regular rash, but then it becomes these pimples that are filled with pus. But what we're learning now in the current outbreak is that sometimes people are just presenting with the rash first rather than these other symptoms at the beginning. So often now people may present with rash in one part of the body, and that extends to other parts of the body. And then the other thing that's important to keep in mind is often there are lesions or sores in the mouth, for example.

RASCOE: And once a person is diagnosed, what happens then? So should they isolate and for how long?

EL-SADR: Yes, definitely. Once somebody is diagnosed with monkeypox, they should isolate. The duration of isolation is very dependent on how long it takes till everything resolve - all the rash completely resolves - and that can take between two and four weeks.

RASCOE: What are the side effects, or are there long-term effects from monkeypox that people should be concerned about?

EL-SADR: You know, for some, getting monkeypox can cause some symptoms - pain and some discomfort with the symptoms that they get or the rash and so on. But thankfully, the vast majority of people either have very mild symptoms and they recover on their own or they have discomfort and pain, and that can be alleviated with the treatments we have or for those who are at high risk, again, the treatments can be very helpful.

RASCOE: An area that people are very concerned about is colleges and universities. They're going to return to campus this fall. I know you're involved in Columbia University's response to monkeypox. Like, what type of things are you advising students or actions that students should take to stay safe?

EL-SADR: Well, I think some of the actions include not having contact or touching any skin or rash if somebody does have any skin rash that's suggestive of monkeypox. We're also recommending to not share towels, for example, or beddings or clothes with an individual who's suspected of having monkeypox. And then importantly is to seek vaccination if the individual is at risk for monkeypox. And lastly, of course, if someone develops symptoms, we always say immediately seek care.

RASCOE: The American College Health Association said in a statement to NPR that they don't currently have specific recommendations but are encouraging members to make use of the CDC guidelines, specifically those for congregate settings. Do you feel like colleges and universities are doing enough to prepare for monkeypox?

EL-SADR: Colleges and universities are ramping up their preparation right now. I think we have to be very careful as we craft our communication and messaging about this to avoid stigmatizing. What we've learned from other infectious diseases like HIV and COVID-19 and many others is stigma is often what deters people from seeking the services they need.

RASCOE: That's Dr. Wafaa El-Sadr, professor of epidemiology and medicine at Columbia University. Thank you so much for speaking with us today.

EL-SADR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.