PENNSYLVANIA (WHTM) — The World Health Organization recently designated monkeypox a global emergency, its highest level of alert. COVID-19 received the designation in January 2020. With the monkeypox declaration coming on the heels of the coronavirus outbreak, it may feel like the world is heading into a pandemic sequel, but experts say that is likely not the case.

What does the WHO monkeypox emergency designation mean?

With monkeypox cases spreading worldwide, WHO declared the disease a global emergency.

Previously, monkeypox cases were predominantly limited to Africa, where people typically contracted the disease through contact with infected animals like rodents, the Associated Press explains. Now, monkeypox is spreading between people with no links to infected animals and no recent travel to Africa.

“(The emergency designation) helps in a coordinated response to this — in my opinion — global issue now,” said Dr. Mohammad Ali, lead physician for infectious disease at Penn State Health Holy Spirit Medical Center. “WHO will ask countries to maintain data on monkeypox virus infections and develop a coordinated effort to stop the spread.”

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“We have an outbreak that has spread around the world rapidly through new modes of transmission, about which we understand too little,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus according to an Associated Press report.

Over 16,800 cases of monkeypox have been reported worldwide by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the majority of which are in countries that have not historically reported monkeypox. More than 2,800 cases have been reported in the U.S.

WHO global health emergency declarations have the potential to inspire coordinated control efforts, streamline funding for treatments, and galvanize countries to take evidence-based action.

How concerned should I be about the monkeypox emergency designation?

“For the general public, the chances of getting monkeypox are still low,” Ali said.

The majority of monkeypox cases have been concentrated among men who have sex with men, Ali noted, although anyone who has prolonged contact with an infected individual can contract the virus.

“It is rare for monkeypox to make you sick enough to end up in the hospital, and extremely rare to die from it,” said Dr. John Goldman, infectious disease specialist at UPMC.

As of July 23, the AP said that all reported deaths so far had occurred in Africa, predominantly in Nigeria and Congo, where a more dangerous version of monkeypox is spreading. The CDC says that the other version of the virus, which is currently spreading in the U.S. and elsewhere around the world, has a survival rate of greater than 99%.

Children under 8 years old, people with weakened immune systems, people with a history of eczema, and people who are pregnant or breastfeeding may have a greater risk of getting seriously ill or dying from monkeypox, the CDC says.

“For the most part, as you go through your day-to-day life, unless you come into contact with someone who has monkeypox, you are unlikely to get monkeypox. You should be aware of it, but you certainly shouldn’t worry or panic about it,” Goldman said.

How does monkeypox compare to COVID-19?

In short, Goldman said, “I don’t think it (monkeypox) is nearly as scary as COVID.”

On top of the fact that monkeypox doesn’t tend to land people in the hospital, Goldman said, it doesn’t spread as rapidly as COVID-19, either (more on that below).

“I don’t think we’re going to have a COVID-19-like picture, but in my opinion, it’s going to take a long time for it to totally go away, or we might not totally get rid of it,” Ali said.

Monkeypox symptoms can last for 2-4 weeks, according to the WHO, during which time infected individuals can spread the virus to others. In contrast, people with mild or moderate COVID-19 are typically infectious for no more than 10 days (about a week and a half) from the start of symptoms, and those with more severe cases of COVID are likely infectious for up to 20 days from the onset of symptoms, the CDC says.

While COVID-19 was a “novel” coronavirus, Ali noted that monkeypox is not a new disease, so as long as health care providers know to watch for monkeypox cases and as long as supplies are available, experts do know how to test for it and treat it.

How is monkeypox spread?

Monkeypox is spread through direct contact with an infected person’s rash, scabs, or bodily fluids. It can also spread through respiratory droplets during extended face-to-face interaction or close physical contact, according to the CDC.

One can also contract monkeypox by touching items like bed linens or clothing that were in contact with an infected person’s rash, the CDC says. However, Goldman said, people are very unlikely to catch the virus from, say, sitting on a public bus or touching a doorknob or trying on clothing in a store.

While the sores associated with monkeypox may not develop right away, people experiencing other symptoms earlier in the course of their infection could still spread the disease to others through prolonged exposure to respiratory secretions, Ali noted.

Could monkeypox mean a return to masking? How do I avoid catching monkeypox?

Mask mandates and shutdowns followed the COVID-19 global health emergency declaration, but infectious disease experts say those precautions are unlikely to return for monkeypox.

“I don’t think that we’re going to have to do any kind of shutdown, any kind of masking, any kind of social distancing because this isn’t a respiratory virus, this isn’t something that’s spread easily through the air,” Goldman said.

For people to avoid catching monkeypox, Goldman said first of all, “they shouldn’t have contact with anyone who has obvious lesions on their skin.” For example, maybe don’t hug a family member who has a new rash or new blisters, he said.

Awareness is also important, Ali noted. “It’s important that one is aware of the fact that monkeypox is spreading in the community, and if you are at higher risk of getting it — for example, if you had contact with somebody who had a similar kind of rash or if you’ve had multiple sexual partners — and you’ve developed a rash, then you have to be aware of it so that you can diagnose it early and stop the spread,” Ali said.

What should I do if I think I’ve been exposed to monkeypox? What are the symptoms of monkeypox?

“If somebody realizes that they have the rash and could be at risk of getting monkeypox, then they should isolate themselves right away and should get in touch with their primary physician to get a diagnosis,” said Ali.

There are no at-home monkeypox tests, Goldman said, so individuals who think they may have contracted the disease need to see a doctor or visit an emergency room to get tested.

The tell-tale symptom of monkeypox is rash-like sores on the skin. Images of the lesions can be graphic and are not included in this article, but some photos of them can be seen here. The blisters typically form in places like one’s face, hands, feet, genitals, or inside of the mouth, according to the CDC. The rash may begin looking like pimples or blisters, and then it will scab over, Ali noted, and it may leave scars.

Other monkeypox symptoms include fever, headaches, muscle aches, fatigue, and swollen lymph nodes. Swollen lymph nodes differentiate monkeypox from other illnesses like chickenpox, measles, and smallpox, the WHO says.

The rash typically develops within 1-3 days of the fever, according to the WHO. The CDC notes that some people may only experience the rash.

How is monkeypox treated?

There are no treatments specifically for monkeypox, according to the CDC. Ali explained that usually monkeypox will progress and go away on its own.

For those who may be at risk of more severe disease, there is an antiviral medication that can be administered to patients.

Is there a monkeypox vaccine?

Individuals who have been exposed to monkeypox can receive one of two vaccines to help prevent illness or minimize symptoms in what is called “post-exposure prophylaxis,” Ali said.

The CDC says the vaccine should be given within four days of exposure for the best chance of preventing the onset of the illness or between four and 14 days to reduce symptoms of the disease.

The vaccine is typically not given to people before exposure to the monkeypox. The exception is people who are at high risk of coming into contact with and contracting the virus, such as laboratory workers who handle specimens that may contain the virus.