People are understandably anxious about monkeypox. They are likely more so because of their experiences during the pandemic. But although we need to take the disease seriously, monkeypox is much less of threat than Covid. It won’t have the same impact on societies or lead to the type of control measures we have seen over the past two years.
The virus that causes monkeypox is found primarily in small animals like rodents in parts of West and Central Africa — but was first identified in monkeys. It can sometimes spread to humans and because of international travel, it can spread to other parts of the world. But unlike Covid-19, which is easily transmissible and has caused huge waves of infection globally, monkeypox spreads much more slowly, requiring close contact with an infected person or animal.
Monkeypox outbreaks can generally be contained through conventional public health measures — like identifying and isolating cases early on, tracing contacts to identify people who are at risk of infection, and good practices when dealing with people who are infected. Smallpox vaccines also provide some protection against infection. They can be used if necessary in health care workers or in close contacts to reduce their risk. However, use of vaccination will be very limited and we won’t see it widely in the UK.
Our public health agencies are well-placed to manage the monkeypox outbreak in the UK. We now have much more experience in areas such as contact tracing and in isolating people with infections than we did before the Covid-19 pandemic. We will continue to see cases of monkeypox in the UK and elsewhere, but our public health system has the capacity to limit the outbreak and prevent it from having a major effect on our society.
The monkeypox outbreak does show how the UK must maintain a strong infection control system so that we are prepared to deal with this and any future infectious diseases that may enter the country. Finally, although people should not become unduly anxious and have a very low risk of coming into contact with monkeypox, everyone should remain vigilant and seek medical advice if they become unwell and develop an unusual skin rash.
Professor Azeem Majeed is head of the Department of Primary Care and Public Health at Imperial College London