In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Fort Worth newsmakers, Dr. Jo Anna Leuck, a physician and assistant dean of curriculum at the TCU School of Medicine, provides a primer on monkeypox after a Dallas resident contracted the virus. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For a longer conversation, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.

Alexis Allison: ​​Dr. Leuck, can you tell us about the monkeypox outbreak? What’s going on?

Dr. Jo Anna Leuck: In a few countries outside of Africa — where we know there’s monkeypox — there have been been outbreaks, including at least one, if not a few more, confirmed cases in the United States.

Dr. Jo Anna Leuck (Courtesy | TCU School of Medicine)

Allison: What is monkeypox? 

Leuck: Monkeypox is a virus, and it includes symptoms like fever, but the thing that is really striking about it is a rash. It’s a virus that’s in the same family as smallpox. 

Allison: Can you tell us a little bit more about that rash, and how else monkeypox affects people?

Leuck: So, if you catch monkeypox, you actually won’t know it for a little while. It takes anywhere from seven to 10 days where you have the virus, but before you start demonstrating symptoms. The first symptom you get is just really not feeling well. You may run a fever, you’ll feel really tired, achey. And something that is really specific to the monkeypox is, up to like 90% of people get swollen lymph nodes. And so especially around your neck and your armpits you’ll notice that you’ve got swollen bumps that could be tender. 

That happens about two days before the rash. And it usually starts from the center of the body and spreads outward. And the rash itself has a couple stages. So at first, it’s kind of flat, red, just small dots almost. And then those dots fill with clear fluid, and then the fluid turns yellow and looks like puss. Sometimes all of the bumps change at the same time. 

Monkeypox symptoms:

  1. Fever
  2. Headache
  3. Muscle aches
  4. Backache
  5. Swollen lymph nodes
  6. Chills
  7. Exhaustion
  8. Rash

Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention

Allison: How dangerous is monkeypox? 

Leuck: So this is my opinion: I think that it sounds scarier than it is. And I do think everyone’s on alert, right? Because we have just been through a horrible pandemic with COVID, especially pre-vaccine. It was so dangerous. But I will say, while monkeypox in a few people can be dangerous, in general, it’s going to be not feeling well for a couple of weeks. But for the most part, there aren’t complications. 

In fact, I want to say it was 2003, there actually was an outbreak in the U.S., and there were zero deaths associated with that outbreak. Now there can be different strains, though, and again, as we learned from COVID, you always want to have precautions. But in general, I would say that there’s a lot of more dangerous diseases, for sure.

Allison: If people in the U.S. were worried about contracting monkeypox, what could they do to try to mitigate their risk?

Leuck: If you think that you have been exposed, the best thing, again, is to go and stay home for a two-week period so that you aren’t then spreading it to other people. And so you’d be monitoring your symptoms. There is not a specific vaccine for monkeypox. But there is some evidence that perhaps the smallpox vaccine could be helpful. And so at least for right now, the CDC is recommending health care workers (get the smallpox vaccine). So I’m an ER physician. If I knew I was going to be taking care of patients with monkeypox, it might be worthwhile for me to get it.

There’s also some evidence that perhaps — and we don’t know — that perhaps, after you have monkeypox, it may be helpful to get the smallpox vaccine. But with there being not a ton of evidence, I really am not sure people are putting a lot of faith in that. But it’s another idea, because there is not a medicine for it. There is nothing that’s going to cure monkeypox. We haven’t discovered it yet.

Allison: How does it spread from person to person?

Leuck: There is a concern that it can spread by air. So if you had coughed, like, big respiratory droplets, it could spread by air. That’s why it would be so important to isolate at your house, to wear a mask, to do those things that we’ve gotten used to. There is a chance that, if the fluid from that rash touched another person, that it could be spread in that way. So fluid-to-fluid transfer between humans.

Allison: Don’t touch someone else’s rash, essentially.

Leuck: But again, the good news here is that compared to smallpox, compared to COVID, it actually is much less contagious than some of these other viruses that we’re more familiar with.

Allison: Is there anything else that you’d like to share with us about monkeypox?

Leuck: I really do think that this is one for us to keep our eye on, but to, at least at this point, not lose sleep over. So the CDC and the (World Health Organization) have done a great job of alerting us. Anyone that’s traveling to endemic areas, or is around someone that has traveled to endemic areas, they need to be extra cautious. But in general, for the average person that’s listening to this interview, it’s good to be aware of it, but it’s nothing to lose sleep over. Just do your normal things: Good hand washing, try to stay away from people that are sick. If you feel sick, stay at home.

Alexis Allison is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. Contact her by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Alexis Allison

Alexis Allison covers health for the Fort Worth Report. When she can, she'll slip in an illustration or two. Allison is a former high school English teacher and hopes her journalism is likewise educational....