What is Monkeypox & How Is It Transmitted?

Monkeypox is a rare infectious disease that is caused by the monkeypox virus.

The disease is named after monkeys because it was discovered among some isolated monkey colonies in 1958. It is similar to smallpox but less severe.

It took another 12 years before the first human outbreak of this disease was reported. While the world was just getting rid of smallpox for good in 1970, a 9-year-old boy in the Democratic Republic of Congo was discovered to have contracted monkeypox.

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Talking about smallpox, here is an interesting fact for you:


Smallpox is the only human infectious disease to be eradicated from nature.

Since 1970, when smallpox was eliminated and monkeypox was discovered, monkeypox outbreaks have occurred in some West and Central African countries.

The only time the disease has been reported outside Africa was in the United States in 2003, where some people who had close contact with pet prairie dogs were discovered to have monkeypox.

So, what causes monkeypox?

As earlier stated, a virus, the monkeypox virus, causes the disease. The virus belongs to the Orthopoxvirus genus. Other members of this genus are smallpox and cowpox viruses.

How is monkeypox transmitted?

Even though the disease is rare, it important to know how it is transmitted.

There are actually two broad ways in which it is spread:

  • Animal-to-human transmission
  • Human-to-human transmission

Animal-to-human Transmission:

The virus has been identified in some monkeys and rodents.

It is usually spread this way when humans hunt rodents and monkeys for food. Here are ways it can be transmitted from animals to humans:

  • Contact with blood, body fluids or wounds of infected animals
  • Bites or scratches from infected animals
  • Inadequately cooked meat of infected animals

Human-to-human Transmission:

This method accounts for 10-30% of the cases. Even then, it is more likely to be transmitted through prolonged face-to-face contact with an infected person.

Also, according to the World Health Organisation, there is no evidence to show that human-to-human transmission alone can sustain monkeypox infection among humans. In other words, it is unlikely that a very major outbreak can occur without the involvement of infected animals.


Here are ways monkeypox can be transmitted from one person to another:

  • Contact with respiratory secretions from an infected person (sneezes, cough, catarrh)
  • Contact with blood, body fluids, wounds and rashes of an infected person.
  • Indirectly, through contact with contaminated clothing and sheets.


What are the symptoms and signs of monkeypox?

When a person is infected with monkeypox, it takes about 7-14 days for the person to develop symptoms.

The first symptoms are related to a generalized illness, then after 1-3 days, a rash appears. Here are the signs and symptoms of monkeypox:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Body weakness
  • Back pain
  • Muscle aches
  • Enlargement of lymph nodes (bean-shaped glands that are part of the immune system)

1-3 days after the fever starts, a rash develops. The rash usually starts on the face, then spreads to other parts of the body.

The symptoms of monkeypox are quite similar to smallpox. However, one differentiating factor is the enlargement of lymph nodes that occur in monkeypox.

The illness usually lasts for about 2-4 weeks.

Can monkeypox kill?

In recorded outbreaks, about 10% of cases resulted in deaths. Children are more likely to die from monkeypox than adults.

How is monkeypox treated?

Monkeypox infections are self-limiting. What this means is that it goes away on its own, usually after 2-4 weeks.

There is no specific medication nor available vaccine for monkeypox, hence prevention is key.

Its medical management is basically supportive, that is the primary aim of treatment is to take care of its symptoms.

How is monkeypox prevented?

Since there is no specific treatment, prevention is very important. In the event of an outbreak, here’s how to prevent its transmission:

  • Educate members of the public about its transmission and symptoms.
  • Ensure all animal-derived food is thoroughly cooked.
  • Avoid physical contact with ill animals, use gloves where necessary.
  • Avoid physical contact with infected people and their clothing.
  • Isolate infected people from the general public.
  • Practice handwashing optimally.
  • Use of gloves and personal protective equipment when handling taking care of patients.


Even though monkeypox outbreaks are rare, they can happen and can sometimes lead to a deadly illness.

It is primarily transmitted by infected animals, hence, caution must be taken when handling sick animals. Also, ensuring that meat is adequately cooked would go a long way in preventing the transmission of this disease to humans.

In case of an outbreak, education, surveillance, and reporting are important in achieving containment of the disease.

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Omiete Charles-Davies, MBBS

Dr. Omiete Charles-Davies graduated from the University of Lagos with a degree in medicine and surgery. He is a licensed medical doctor and has worked in different private and government-owned hospitals as a general medical practitioner. For fun, he loves to travel and experience new cultures.