Monkeypox Is Spreading, But University’s Risk Believed To Be Low

Two hands with an orange tint almost touching in front of a blue sky. Orange dots are scattered between the hands.

In May, there were a handful of monkeypox cases in Europe. By August, more than 25,000 people worldwide were infected, including 7,000 cases in the U.S.

The World Health Organization declared monkeypox a global threat last month, and the U.S. followed suit Thursday, categorizing the outbreak as a public health emergency.

UVA Today asked Dr. Costi Sifri, an infectious diseases specialist with UVA Health, to explain the disease and what it could mean locally as University of Virginia students prepare to return to Grounds.

Portrait of Dr. Sifri Costi smiling at the camera.

Q. First of all, what exactly is monkeypox?

A. Monkeypox is a disease caused by the monkeypox virus. Monkeypox virus is in the same family of viruses as variola virus, which is the virus that causes smallpox. While infection with monkeypox in the current global outbreak is typically mild and rarely fatal, symptoms can be painful.

Q. How is it transmitted?

A. According to the CDC, monkeypox is spread by direct contact with rashes or infectious fluids from a person with monkeypox or indirectly through contact with contaminated materials.

Examples include:

  • Direct contact with monkeypox rash, scabs or body fluids from a person with monkeypox.
  • Contact with respiratory droplets during prolonged, face-to-face contact.
  • Direct contact with items, such as clothing, linens, or other surfaces, that were used by someone with monkeypox.

During the current outbreak, the CDC says that most people report having close, sustained physical contact – including intimate physical contact such as kissing, cuddling or sex – with people who have monkeypox.

Of note, people who do not have symptoms of monkeypox cannot spread the virus to others.

Q. What are the symptoms? How would someone know they have contracted monkeypox?

A. Symptoms of monkeypox include fever, headache, muscle aches, fatigue, sore throat, nasal congestion and swollen lymph nodes. Rash is the most distinctive finding of monkeypox infection.

The rash can look like bumps or pimples that progress to blisters or pustules, which are typically painful. Classically, the rash starts in the mouth and face and then spreads to other parts of the body such as the trunk, extremities, hands and feet. In this outbreak, some patients present with rashes that involve only the genitals, anus or buttocks. 

If you believe you have monkeypox or have had close personal contact with someone who has monkeypox, please contact UVA Student Health Wellness.

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Q. Who is most at risk for contracting monkeypox? What is the risk to the University population?

A. Monkeypox is not easily spread between people, and the risk for the University population is believed to be low. However, anyone in close contact with a person with monkeypox can get it and should take steps to protect themselves.

Q. Are there treatments or vaccines for monkeypox?

A. Because monkeypox is genetically similar to smallpox, medications and vaccinations developed to treat or prevent smallpox may be beneficial for monkeypox.

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