The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is stepping up its guidance concerning monkeypox. While the risk of monkeypox is still thought to be low for the general public, the agency is now warning people to take more precautions while traveling. These precautions include avoiding contact with visibly sick people as well as wearing a mask.
The CDC changed its language over the weekend. As detailed in its travel notice concerning monkeypox, it now considers the situation to be a level 2 alert, which merits some enhanced precautions. The highest level is 3, which recommends against any non-essential travel to affected areas.
Monkeypox is thought to be native to rodents, and up until recently, it has only occasionally caused human outbreaks in parts of Africa where it may be endemic. This year, however, there have been around 1,000 cases confirmed or suspected in more than two dozen countries, including the United States. Many of these cases have had recent no travel history to Africa, suggesting that the virus is spreading locally between people.
The CDC is now cautioning travelers to avoid close contact with sick people, particularly those with skin lesions or genital lesions—monkeypox’s most distinctive symptom, along with flu-like illness. People should also avoid contact with dead or wild animals, including rodents; they should avoid eating so-called bushmeat or products made from wild animals in Africa; and they should avoid touching or sharing materials that may have been contaminated by infected individuals, such as bedsheets. Lastly, the CDC is now recommending travelers to mask up, noting that “wearing a mask can help protect you from many diseases, including monkeypox.”
Early investigations have found that many infected individuals may have caught it while having sex, though the exact mechanism of transmission is not yet clear. It may be spreading through close contact with an infected person’s rashes, for instance, but it could theoretically be spreading through infected semen as well. Many outbreaks have been linked to men who have sex with men, but the risk of sexual transmission isn’t exclusive to these individuals. And despite close contact being the presumed route of transmission for most cases, lab studies have suggested that the virus can spread through droplets or aerosols as well.
Last week, new evidence surfaced suggesting that the virus has been circulating outside of Africa some time before these latest outbreaks became noticed. And while efforts are ongoing to trace the outbreaks and limit further spread, experts have warned that it may be not possible to stop the virus from establishing itself in new parts of the world. At the same time, monkeypox is considerably less contagious than covid-19, the other most recent illness to warrant widespread travel precautions, and there are effective vaccines and treatments available for it.
For those wondering, the CDC does still advise travelers to consider precautions—including mask-wearing—when traveling to countries with moderate-to-high levels of covid-19 transmission.