Monkeypox on the Rise
"Any change, even a change for the better, is always accompanied by drawbacks and discomforts." --British author Arnold Bennett
The first disease ever completely eradicated by medical science was smallpox, and that was touted as a tremendous moment not only for the scientific community, but for the entire world. As of 1980, people were no longer at risk of contracting smallpox and therefore needed no vaccination against it. Thus, all smallpox vaccinations ceased.
Fast forward 30 years to the present day and, although there's still no sign of smallpox in our midst (other than in dark warnings of terrorist plots), another related disease is making inroads in human populations in its absence. Monkeypox is a member of the same family of viruses as smallpox and, as many in the medical field suspected, it seems the smallpox vaccine conferred some protection from monkeypox as well. Now, scientists are finding that populations too young to have been vaccinated for smallpox are seeing an increase in the incidence of monkeypox.
A recent study by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles determined that there has been a tremendous rise in monkeypox in the Democratic Republic of Congo in central Africa. Monkeypox transmission had been studied in that nation in the early to mid-1980s, providing a good basis for comparison to today. Unfortunately, the scientists found that the incidence of monkeypox has swelled to 20 times the numbers of the original study. In the 1980s, monkeypox accounted for 0.7 cases per 10,000 people, while the new research -- which took place from November 2005 to November 2007 -- shows that rates have gone up to 14.4 cases per 10,000 people. During the survey period, the researchers found 760 laboratory-confirmed cases of monkeypox.
The monkeypox virus was so named because it was first discovered in lab monkeys back in 1958, but its natural hosts are forest-dwelling animals of Africa such as squirrels, rats, mice, and rabbits. Its symptoms -- including fever, headache, backache, swollen lymph nodes, and a blistering rash -- are similar to those of smallpox in humans but somewhat milder -- although monkeypox does cause death in approximately 10 percent of cases. Unlike smallpox, it is transmissible between animals and humans, making it potentially even more difficult to contain.
The rising number of cases researchers found in the Democratic Republic of Congo is thought to be at least partially caused by regional war and poverty that has driven more of the country's rural population into the forests to survive. Not only are these people now in closer contact with the animals that spread monkeypox, but they are oftentimes hunting them for subsistence. Therefore it makes sense that the researchers discovered a higher rate of monkeypox infection among men than among women, as they are the primary hunters. There was also a higher rate among people living in the rural areas around the forests than among those living in cities and towns.
In addition, more than 90 percent of those infected by monkeypox were born after 1980, the year that smallpox vaccinations ended. Without the vaccine to confer immunity to monkeypox as well as smallpox, the infection level has been slowly increasing. The average age of confirmed monkeypox sufferers in the current study was a mere 12 years old. Those who were vaccinated against smallpox were five times less likely to develop monkeypox than the unvaccinated population.
Monkeypox has shown up in other nations in central and western Africa such as Sudan and the Republic of the Congo (not to be confused with the Democratic Republic of the Congo) as well. There was also a brief outbreak in the United States in June of 2003 when people were infected after coming into contact with sick pet prairie dogs.
So far, these episodes of monkeypox have been very well contained. But with the frequency of world travel today, it's all too easy to imagine an epidemic outbreak of a virus like monkeypox. It could quickly happen if the virus became prevalent in rodent populations of a growing number of countries. And since viruses have the ability to evolve with each new infection, there is always the possibility of a more serious and potentially deadly strain arising and becoming the plague of the 21st Century. All in all, it's just one more reason to keep your immune system optimized and have a supply of natural antipathogens in your medicine cabinet.