Animal Health Matters: is monkeypox the next germ to worry about?

Russ Daly
Special to the Farm Forum

I frequently write in this space about unusual animal-related germs and their potential to make people sick.

In doing so, my intentions are to inform, not panic people. After all, it’s not like the germs I’ve recently written about have taken off to cause rampant disease throughout the population — highly pathogenic avian influenza (terrible for birds but this version hasn’t caused any human illness) and Salmonella from bearded dragons (a big problem if you have a bearded dragon, but how many of you have a bearded dragon?) being a couple examples.

So guess what? Here’s another one for you: monkeypox.

As with those other examples, widespread disease isn’t really in the cards for this one either, but, like the others, it’s very interesting to examine.

Monkeypox is a virus that mostly causes skin sores. For the vast majority of people who pick it up, it’s a self-limiting (albeit contagious) problem. A small percentage of infected people, however, can have it spread deeper into the body with potentially lethal effects. Therefore, it’s nothing to shrug off.

At the time of this writing, some considerable outbreaks of monkeypox are affecting people overseas, and several people have been identified with it in the U.S.

Monkeypox is just one member of the poxvirus “family.” There are dozens of poxviruses out there, most of them with animal names in their prefix, hence goatpox, cowpox, camelpox and many bird varieties — canarypox, fowlpox and pigeonpox — to name a few. Confusingly, chickenpox is from a completely different family of viruses.

Some of these poxviruses only affect animal species, but many affect both people and animals. These zoonotic poxviruses tend to reserve most of their bad effects for the animals they infect with occasional crossovers to people.

Perhaps the one most commonly encountered by livestock owners is that of “orf,” better known as “sore mouth” in sheep and goats. In these animals, the sores occur in the mouth and can be easily transmitted to other animals. People who contact these sores while working with infected animals can develop sores themselves, which usually are self-limiting but occasionally can leave behind some unsightly scars.

Smallpox is in this family of viruses, too. Thankfully, smallpox is something we really don’t have to worry about anymore, with it having been eradicated for more than 40 years now.

One would think that monkeys would be the main source for monkeypox virus in the world today, but the “reservoir” for this virus actually isn’t well understood. It was first recognized in a colony of research monkeys in Africa, but we know that the virus can be spread by some rodents and infect people that way. In fact, about 20 years ago, the last U.S. outbreak of monkeypox occurred when some pet rats were imported from Africa, causing problems in the people handling them (we don’t import those anymore!).

Today, human cases are most commonly found in central and western Africa and in travelers who have been in that part of the world.

Likely, these initial monkeypox cases are travel related as well. However, once it’s here, it can spread from person to person. Unlike some of the viruses we’ve dealt with lately, it appears that monkeypox needs some pretty close contact between infected and non-infected people to spread through direct skin contact or via very short-distance respiratory transmission.

I doubt that we’ll see many, if any at all, cases of monkeypox in our part of the country, but you never know. These infections are likely easier to deal with than say, COVID-19 or influenza, however.

The symptoms of monkeypox infection are easily recognizable, facilitating effective isolation from patients as they recover. Additionally, the close contact needed for transmission means it’s going to be tough for the virus to infect a lot of people at once.

Even though it might not be something we need to worry about here, monkeypox is another example of how the great majority of newly emerging human germs ultimately have their origin in animals.

Unfortunately, these germs usually don’t hit our radar screen until after they’ve made the jump from the animal to the person. Perhaps paying closer attention to these pathogens in their natural animal environments might result in more effective ways of making sure they never make people sick.

Russ Daly, DVM, is the Extension Veterinarian at South Dakota State University.  He can be reached via e-mail at russell.daly@sdstate.edu or at 605-688-5171.