Monkeypox outbreak: Seattle biologist shares what we already know and clears up misconceptions

There’s a lot of information circulating with the growing international monkeypox outbreak. So far, health officials said there’s no evidence of the virus spreading locally. 

FOX 13 sat down with Carl Bergstrom, a UW professor in the Department of Biology, to clear up some growing misconceptions about the virus.

"It typically spreads so poorly that when it gets started in humans, it just peters out," said Bergstrom. "We don’t usually see a great big cluster like this, or set of clusters, and human-to-human transmission."

People infected with monkeypox can develop a fever and a characteristic rash that breaks out into pustules.

"It’s called monkeypox, but it’s actually a rodent virus. It’s just got this name ‘monkeypox’ because it was first discovered in a monkey colony," said Bergstrom. "It’s an orthopox virus. It’s a close relative of the smallpox virus, which sounds kind of scary and, in fact, it does have a presentation that’s rather similar to smallpox, though not as high of death rates."

Cases have been reported in the U.S. before. Bergstrom said back in 2003, there were 47 cases reported that were associated with the exotic pet trade. 

"We controlled that quite easily. There wasn’t a lot of human-to-human transmission. No one died during that U.S. outbreak," said Bergstrom.

Seattle-King County Public Health said many of the 100 confirmed and suspected cases of monkeypox that have been reported in the U.K. and Europe were among men who are having sex with men, but Health Officer Dr. Jeff Duchin said anyone who is a close contact is at risk.

"I would not be surprised if we see more, either travel-associated, or from unrecognized local spread. So people should understand that this disease can affect anyone," said Dr. Duchin.

The smallpox vaccine works well against monkeypox, according to Bergstrom, who said because of bio-terror concerns the U.S. has a strategic stockpile of the smallpox vaccine and other candidate vaccines for monkeypox.

"So we’re not starting from scratch like we were with COVID-19," said Bergstrom. "We’re taking a known disease that we’ve got a vaccine for, we’ve got antivirals that are helpful, so instead of starting from Ground Zero we’re way ahead of the game."

Health officials were concerned the virus may have evolved, but so far there’s no evidence of changes which is reassuring.

"The cases that are showing up in the U.S. have travel history, and these are signs that this is spreading by close contact not spreading easily. If the virus hasn’t fundamentally changed, this has been a virus that’s relatively been easy to control. Basically avoiding close contact with people who are infected is all you need to do," said Bergstrom.

Local health officials said an adult man is presumed to have monkeypox in the Seattle-King County area. Doctors said he recently traveled internationally and is isolating and recovering at home.