Monkeypox Is Now A Public Health Emergency. Here’s What That Means.

Does your response to monkeypox need to change now that it’s a public health emergency? Here’s what you need to know.

On Aug. 4, the Biden administration declared monkeypox a public health emergency as cases rise across the country.

The first monkeypox case in this year’s outbreak in the United States was reported in Massachusetts in May. Since then, the U.S. has had more than 9,400 reported cases and counting. There are still unknowns about the virus, but it is said to spread through prolonged skin-to-skin contact and results in a bumpy rash that turns into painful, scabby lesions.

But what does declaring monkeypox as a public health emergency actually mean? Here, experts share what to know and how this may affect you.

A public health emergency declaration usually comes when a virus or disease is a threat to the public.

According to Dr. Josh Sharfstein, vice dean at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, monkeypox “was declared a public health emergency because it is a new infectious disease to this country that’s been spreading pretty quickly.”

A public health emergency is typically called when large swaths of people are affected by an issue, causing a need for a government response. Previous declarations were made for the opioid crisis, H1N1 (also known as swine flu) and COVID-19.

The government response can make certain tools more readily available.

“All emergency declarations allow governments access to money, personnel and other resources to best manage the emergency,” explained Dr. Paulette Grey Riveria, a family medicine physician with PlushCare and regional medical director for the Louisiana Department of Health.

According to Sharfstein, now that monkeypox has been declared a public health emergency, agencies including the Department of Health and Human Services have access to additional (yet limited) funds, and the Food and Drug Administration can make treatments, such as vaccines, more easily available. (Though it’s worth noting that monkeypox vaccine supply in the U.S. is currently very low.)

Additionally, Riveria noted that this declaration could mean more personal protective equipment or emergency medical help can be deployed in areas that are highly affected by monkeypox. She added that, in general, a public health emergency lasts for 90 days (though it can be extended). During this time, these additional resources are available for the government’s use and distribution.

An emergency declaration also helps bring awareness to the severity of the virus.

Sharfstein said that declaring a virus a public health emergency sends a strong message to clinicians and public health officials. They’ll now be on the lookout for signs of infection in their patients and will hopefully take this virus seriously if they weren’t already.

The same thing happens among the general public, he added. “I also think [it] is partly intended to get the public to take notice” of this new infectious disease, Sharfstein said.

Monkeypox is a very painful syndrome and in very rare cases can cause severe illness and even death, Sharfstein added.

Hopefully the public health emergency declaration encourages those at risk to take proper precautions.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the “monkeypox virus is spreading mostly through close, intimate contact with someone who has monkeypox.” And the CDC’s monkeypox vaccination guidelines currently include only those who are at high risk — people “who have been exposed to monkeypox and people who may be more likely to get monkeypox.”

In the U.S., monkeypox is largely spreading among men who have sex with men, but cases have also been reported in two children and a pregnant woman. “In particular, individuals who are at risk should be aware of how they can reduce the risk and seek attention if they have symptoms,” Sharfstein said.

In other words, if you’re at risk, you should get vaccinated against monkeypox and monitor yourself for any symptoms. If you notice any signs of monkeypox, which primarily are a pimple-like rash or lesions on the face, hands, feet or inside the mouth, you should let your doctor know ASAP.

Other symptoms include muscle aches, fatigue, swollen lymph nodes and headache.

It’s important to stay informed.

Riveria stressed that it’s perfectly normal for things like health guidelines and vaccine rollouts to change quickly during the early days of a public health emergency, but don’t let that frustrate you.

“The public should resist any urge to panic,” she said. “The best thing any individual can do during a public health emergency is to stay calm and informed.”

She suggested looking to your local public health department for guidance and resources about monkeypox.

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