Monkeypox cases continue to rise across the nation, with approximately 200 cases confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as of Monday afternoon. 

Despite the rising number of cases, David J. Cennimo, an associate professor of medicine and pediatrics in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, said the overall caseload is still low. 

“We’re finding cases, so I think that awareness of the disease is important because the more people are aware of monkeypox, especially if they are having symptoms, they’re going to seek medical care and that’s important for us to do good case finding,” he said. 

Cennimo compared the current outbreak to one that occurred in 2003, which infected 47 people across six states after originating in Gambian pouched rats imported from Ghana.

He said that what worked to curb the virus two decades ago was alerting people who had come in contact with the pouched rats and advising them to avoid contact with others if they developed lesions, which is a symptom of monkeypox. Now, times have changed, he said, explaining that the current epidemiology indicates that the disease is being sexually transmitted.

Cennimo said that he has been advising patients to practice safe sex, especially those in heavily populated hotspots like the New York City metro area where people may have more than one sexual partner and thus increase their risk for infection. 

This also means that public health officials should focus on messaging campaigns that emphasize how crucial it is to identify and report symptoms among at-risk patients without stigmatizing those who get infected.

“I’m hoping we can basically handle this the way we did in 2003 because what we definitely don’t want to see happen is monkeypox becoming another endemic virus,” he said. “If we can break the cycle of transmission now, take care of people who are already infected and not infect other people, in theory, we could do that.”

Another challenge facing public health officials, he said, is highlighting the dangers associated with monkeypox without causing a panic among the general public. Cennimo added that since the country is still dealing with the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, officials are faced with duelling priorities.   

Speaking about existing monkeypox vaccines and the Biden administration’s preemptive steps to build up the nation’s stockpile, Cennimo said vaccinations may become necessary for certain patient populations but noted that it is unlikely that there will be a mass vaccination campaign like there was for COVID. He attributed this to the considerable side effects of the vaccine, which like the smallpox vaccine, can be even worse than the disease itself. 

Cennimo said people should continue to monitor information related to the outbreaks, especially in hotspot areas, and practice behaviors that lower the risk for potential infection.

“If you’re already protecting yourself against syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia, those same behaviors are going to help you,” he said. “Conversely, if you’re not, I think you should consider this as another potential concern to increase your self-protective behaviors.”