As the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declares the monkeypox outbreak a public health emergency as the number of cases continues to rise, the most important thing you can do is know your level of risk. Monkeypox is still rare and most people have a low risk.
But if you’re in a city where monkeypox is spreading and in a community where it’s spreading, you’re at higher risk in this current phase of the outbreak.
The monkeypox epidemic first began to spread among men who have sex with men, a group that includes people who identify as gay, bisexual, transgender and non-binary. The group continues to be most at risk. So far, most cases have been reported in major cities like New York and Los Angeles.
As the outbreak continues, the virus may soon begin to spread further and begin to affect different demographic groups.
Experts interviewed by ABC News provided the latest information on how to stay safe. Along with these suggestions, experts reiterated that at this time the risk of transmission to the general population is low. But they agreed that everyone should be aware of the current outbreak and take steps to reduce risk.
Be vigilant: Avoid close or skin-to-skin contact with people who may be infected with the virus.
Direct, close, skin-to-skin contact” is thought to be the primary route of transmission, which can occur in a variety of ways. It can occur simply through daily contact with a case of monkeypox, in close proximity, or it can occur through contact intimate, as well as during sexual contact,” said Dr. Wafaa El-Sadr, professor of epidemiology and medicine at Columbia University.
Because monkeypox can be spread during sexual intimacy, it’s important “to be honest and open with your intimate partners” about the risks and possible past exposures, said Richard Silvera, professor of medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
The CDC says monkeypox is contagious from the time symptoms begin until the rash heals. Two to four weeks is the typical duration of the disease.
“You can get a rash in multiple areas of your body, and that rash can look like a lot of things. It can look like a pimple, it can look like a little bump that mimics folliculitis, ie when the hair follicle is infected, it can be painless or painful,” said Dr. Robert Pitts, infectious disease physician at NYU Langone Health.
Do not share: avoid sharing towels, clothes and sheets
The virus can spread through contaminated objects, including “clothing, linens, towels and other porous materials,” says Dr. Anne Rimoin, professor of epidemiology at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Although this form of transmission is not as common as skin-to-skin contact, it is something to keep in mind when sharing objects with others.
“This virus could live on those surfaces for a while and then spread to another person,” Rimoin said.
The CDC also recommends avoiding utensils or cups used by someone with monkeypox.
General hygiene: wash hands with soap and water or use alcohol-based hand sanitizer
“Hand hygiene is the most important thing, not just for monkeypox but for any infectious disease,” says ABC News Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton.
Since hands are the vectors between everything we touch and where germs can enter – eyes, nose, mouth – hand hygiene is essential to stay healthy. Practices that have worked for the past two years are still working.
“Mask wearing, hand washing…if it works for COVID, it will also work for monkeypox,” says Silvera
Cover up: being fully clothed can be safer, especially when encountering large crowds
To reduce the risk of skin-to-skin contact with someone who may have the virus, wear clothes that cover your body.
The CDC says “festivals, events, and concerts where attendees are fully clothed and unlikely to share skin-to-skin contact are safer,” compared to similar events with minimal clothing and close contact.
“These are not events where transmission is likely to occur, but of course if you feel you are in a high-risk category you may want to exercise a little more caution,” he says. Dr. John Brownstein, ABC News contributor and Director of Innovation at Boston Children’s Hospital.
Disinfect: wipe surfaces likely to be contaminated
Monkeypox is considered an orthopoxvirus, susceptible to many disinfectants, according to the CDC. They recommend disinfecting areas where a person with monkeypox has spent time and objects they may have used.
“At the same time, it’s not like people have to go back to those old COVID days where there was a lot of confusion and wiping down groceries and sanitizing household items where there’s literally no no chance of risk,” says Brownstein.
For those specifically in high transmission areas or who encounter surfaces or objects used by someone with monkeypox, disinfection may provide additional protection.
The CDC recommends using an EPA-registered disinfectant.
If eligible, get vaccinated: contact a local health department
The CDC currently recommends that vaccines be given to people at risk of developing monkeypox. This includes people who have been exposed to monkeypox as well as people who know that one of their sex partners in the last two weeks has been diagnosed or people who have had multiple sex partners in the last two weeks living in an area known for monkeypox. People should stay up to date with their local health department to determine eligibility requirements.
“If we had a lot more [vaccine] supply, we could look at vaccinating groups that have very dense social networks, like colleges, students, prisons, living situations that could potentially allow for multiple contacts where there could be risk,” says Brownstein.
Stay up to date: be on the lookout for new information as it happens
“We’re all going to have to kind of throw it together and kind of figure this out as we go along,” Silvera said.
Even researchers and clinicians are learning more every day.
“I studied about [monkeypox] as an infectious disease physician, but just in may i started seeing and interacting with monkeypox patients. So it was a steep learning curve for me,” Pitts said.
Until now, the number of monkeypox cases has been relatively low. We will continue to learn more about the virus over time and expert advice will evolve accordingly. But experts stress that it is important to stay calm.
“It’s quite different from Coronavirus in many ways and so I think people should be aware, concerned, but at the same time shouldn’t really panic,” El-Sadr said.