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(NEW YORK) — With the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declaring the monkeypox outbreak a public health emergency as the number of cases continue to rise, the most important thing you can do is know your risk level. Monkeypox is still rare and most people have a low risk.
But if you are in a city where monkeypox is spreading, and in a community where it’s spreading, you are at higher risk in this current phase of the outbreak.
The monkeypox outbreak first started spreading among men who have sex with men, a group that includes people who identify as gay, bisexual, transgender and nonbinary. The group continues to be at the highest risk. So far, the bulk of cases have been reported in large cities like New York and Los Angeles.
As the outbreak continues, the virus may soon start to spread further and begin to affect different demographic groups.
Experts interviewed by ABC News provided the latest on how to stay safe. Alongside these suggestions, the experts reiterated that at this time, the risk of transmission to the general population is low. But they agreed everyone should be aware of current outbreak and take steps to reduce risk.
Be alert: Avoid close or skin-to-skin contact with those who may have the virus
Direct, close, skin-to-skin contact “is considered to be the main route of transmission, which can occur in a variety of ways. It can occur just by day-to-day contact with a case of monkeypox, in close proximity, or can occur through intimate contact, as well as during sexual contact,” said Dr. Wafaa El-Sadr, a professor of epidemiology and medicine at Columbia University.
Because monkeypox can spread during sexual intimacy, it’s important to “be honest and forthcoming with your intimate partners” about risks and possible prior exposures, said Richard Silvera, professor of medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
The CDC says monkeypox is contagious from the start of symptoms until the rash has healed. Two to four weeks is the typical length of illness.
“You can have a rash in multiple areas of the body, and that rash can look like many things. It can look like a pimple, it can look like a little bump that mimics folliculitis which is when the follicle of the hair gets infected, can be painless or painful,” said Dr. Robert Pitts, an infectious disease doctor at NYU Langone Health.
Don’t share: Avoid sharing towels, clothing and bed linens
The virus can spread through contaminated objects including “clothing, bed sheets, towels, and other porous materials,” says Dr. Anne Rimoin, professor of epidemiology at the University of California, Los Angeles.
While this form of transmission is not nearly as common as skin-to-skin contact, it is something to keep in mind when sharing items with others.
“This virus could live on those surfaces for a period of time and then spread to another person,” Rimoin said.
The CDC also recommends avoiding utensils or cups used by someone with monkeypox.
General hygiene: Wash hands with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer
“Hand hygiene is the most important thing, not just for monkeypox but for any infectious disease,” says ABC News chief medical correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton.
With hands being the vectors between all that we touch and where germs can enter– eyes, nose, mouth — hand hygiene is vital to staying healthy. Practices that have worked for the past two years, still work.
“Mask wearing, hand washing…if it works for COVID it’ll work for monkeypox as well,” says Silvera
Cover up: Being fully clothed may be safer, especially when encountering large crowds
To reduce the likelihood of skin-to-skin contact with someone who may be infected with the virus, wear clothing that covers your body.
The CDC says “festivals, events, and concerts where attendees are fully clothed and unlikely to share skin-to-skin contact are safer,” when compared to similar events with minimal clothing and close contact.
“These are not events where transmission is likely occurring, but of course, if you feel like you’re in a high risk category, you may want to exercise a little bit more caution,” says. Dr. John Brownstein, an ABC News contributor and chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s Hospital.
Disinfect: Wipe down surfaces that may be contaminated
Monkeypox is considered an orthopoxvirus, which are sensitive to many disinfectants, according to the CDC. They recommend disinfecting areas where someone with monkeypox has spent time, and for objects they may have used.
“At the same time, it’s not like people will need to go back to those old COVID days where there was a lot of confusion and wiping down of groceries and disinfecting household items where there’s literally no chance of any risk,” says Brownstein.
For those specifically in areas of high transmission, or are encountering surfaces or objects used by someone with monkeypox, disinfecting may provide additional protection.
The CDC recommends using an EPA registered disinfectant.
If eligible, get vaccinated: Reach out to a local health department
The CDC currently recommends that vaccines should be administered to those at risk of developing monkeypox. This includes those that have been exposed to monkeypox as well as people who are aware that one of their sexual partners in the past two weeks has been diagnosed or people with multiple sexual partners in the past two weeks living in an area with known monkeypox. People should stay up-to-date with their local health department to determine eligibility requirements.
“If we had a lot more [vaccine] supply, we might consider vaccination of groups that have very dense social networks, like college colleges, students, prisons, living situations that would potentially allow for multiple contacts where there could be risk,” says Brownstein.
Stay current: Be on the lookout for new information as it comes
“We’re all going to have to kind of pitch it together and kind of figure this out as we go,” said Silvera.
Even researchers and clinicians are learning more every day.
“I studied about [monkeypox] as an infectious disease physician, but just in May, I started to see and interact with monkeypox patients. So this has been a steep learning curve for me,” said Pitts.
Before now, the number of monkeypox cases has been relatively low. We will continue to learn more about the virus as time goes on and the guidance from experts will evolve as a result. But experts emphasize that remaining calm is important.
“This is quite different from the Coronavirus in so many ways and therefore I think people should be aware, concerned, but at the same time should not really panic,” said El-Sadr.
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