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Sunday, June 4, 2023

An Epidemiologist Speaks Sorting Fact from Fiction About Monkeypox

Zuri Dale, MWM, MPH has always possessed a natural desire to make sense of the world. In high school she began conducting research at Texas Southern University until she graduated. Although her initial desire was to pursue a career in medicine, it would not afford her an opportunity to continue conducting research. Dale opted to pursue epidemiology instead. It is a branch of medicine that attempts to prevent individuals from getting sick. Epidemiologists are known as “disease detectives.”

Today, Dale currently works in that capacity at Texas Southern University as the campus COVID-19 czar and epidemiologist who primarily focuses on infectious diseases and disease prevention. She is responsible for disease surveillance, analytics, and health security of the university’s campus.

“Epidemiologists primarily search for the cause of disease, identify people who are at risk, and subsequently determine how to control or stop the spread or prevent it from happening again,” Dale said.

Monkeypox has recently been on the radar of many Americans. A plethora of rumors have circulated on the Internet about the disease. Dale helped to sort fact from fiction about the disease, while explaining what it is to The Baltimore Times.

“Monkeypox is a rare disease caused by infection with the monkeypox virus and is part of the same family of viruses as smallpox, although it is clinically less severe,” Dale told The Baltimore Times. “Monkeypox does not come from monkeys. Various species have been identified as hosts. However, the exact reservoir is unknown.”

Dale said that monkeypox was first discovered in 1958 among monkeys, however monkeys are not the reservoir for the disease. The first human case was discovered in 1970. Unlike the virus that causes COVID-19, monkeypox is a DNA double-stranded virus. Experiencing fever; chills; swollen lymph nodes; exhaustion; muscle aches; backaches; headaches; respiratory symptoms; lesions and scabs are symptoms of having it. The epidemiologist explained that an individual is considered contagious from the onset of symptoms until a new layer of skin has formed over the rash. This can take anywhere from two to four weeks.

Fears about contracting monkeypox also connect with mistruths. When a panel of 1,580 U.S. adults were surveyed for the Annenberg Public Policy in July of this year, “1 in 5 Americans Fear Getting Monkeypox but Many Know Little About It.”

“A large majority (69%) knows that monkeypox usually spreads by close contact with an infected person, though a quarter of those surveyed (26%) are not sure whether that is true or false,” according to Annenberg Public Policy Center’s national survey.

Dale pointed out truths about monkeypox’s transmission, while stating that it is not as contagious as COVID-19. She stated that it does not spread as easily, nor is monkeypox expected to be a pandemic with the magnitude of COVID-19.

“The vast majority of current cases report recent intimate contact and/or recent sexual intercourse. The likelihood of contracting monkeypox through public transportation, hugging, and shaking hands is low,” Dale said. “Data from the present outbreaks indicates the primary route of exposure is direct skin-to-skin contact of a lesion of an infected individual with the mucous membrane or skin of another.”

Dale added that when looking at data from the current outbreak, data does suggest that most of the population diagnosed with monkeypox are gay, bisexual men who have sex with men. However, there is no indication it cannot be contracted by other groups. Dale provided a caveat that anyone who has skin-to-skin contact with an infected individual is at risk.

As children return to school, parents should keep in mind that pediatric cases of monkeypox thus far have been low.

 “Normal interactions like sharing classroom space do not place you at high risk unless there is skin-to-skin contact with an infected person. However, as the outbreak progresses, we may continue to see other modes of transmission. Proper handwashing practices and avoiding contact with anyone exhibiting symptoms,” Dale said.

She noted that the most impactful conversations to have with minors are those around safe sex practices. On the other hand, Dale noted that adults may guard themselves against monkeypox by avoiding sexual intercourse with anything exhibiting symptoms. However, “some lesions may not be as readily detectable and can be found in the mouth or anus,” Dale said.

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