Monkeypox. The name alone is enough to put any rational person into a panic. It’s the kind of disease you don’t want to get on name alone, and now that the White House has declared a public health emergency for monkeypox, it’s hard not to full on panic. Not so fast. The government’s declaration isn’t meant for you — not exactly. There’s a lot about this disease that we still don’t know but what we do isn’t exactly panic-inducing — especially not for parents.
First of all, declaring a public health emergency allows the government to dedicate more funding and resources to controlling the spread of monkeypox. What it doesn’t necessarily mean is that you or your kids are at high risk of getting it. The people in charge need to worry about monkeypox so they can make the moves to stop it from becoming widespread. But other than taking common sense precautions you probably are already doing because of COVID — frequently washing your hands and staying out of crowded places with lots of touching, like clubs — there’s not much you can do at this point and more importantly, there’s not much you need to do.
Here are 6 reasons why — and how you can know when it is time for you to worry.
1. Only 5 kids have tested positive for monkeypox in the U.S. so far.
Children under age 8 are at increased risk of severe disease if they do get monkeypox, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, at this point in time, they’re not likely to get monkeypox in the first place. Of the 7,102 cases detected in the U.S. so far, only five cases have been reported in kids, and they have all been mild. Sexual contact is responsible for the spread of monkeypox in 95% of cases. And about 99% of cases so far have been in men who have sex with men (although it could jump social networks in the future). Data from Nigeria, where monkeypox has been around for years, shows that older versions of the virus were more likely to infect kids, but that newer strains, like the one circulating in the U.S., tend not to, according to Time. All of this means that right now, kids are largely safe from monkeypox.
2. Monkeypox is less contagious than many other viruses.
As of July, the World Health Organization estimates that every person with monkeypox will affect 1.29 other people on average. In the world of epidemiology, that’s pretty low, explains Katelyn Jetelina, Ph.D., in her newsletter Your Local Epidemiologist. In comparison, people with smallpox infect 3.5 to 6 others on average, and those with Omicron infect even more. In other words, monkeypox just isn’t all that good at infecting people.
3. Monkeypox is mostly spread through close, prolonged contact.
There’s a reason why 95% of the spread of monkeypox has been through sexual activity. It’s not an STI, but it does take a fair bit of time being in someone else’s personal bubble for transmission to occur, and sex is the most common way people do that. Most kids aren’t having this sort of close contact with anyone, except maybe family members they cuddle with.
You may have heard that monkeypox can be transmitted through respiratory droplets or that it’s airborne. Preliminary evidence does support this, Jetelina explained in her newsletter. This sort of transmission could be possible if someone has a monkeypox lesion in their mouth and has a long conversation with another person. But the evidence shows that this isn’t a main mode of transmission, and the mouth isn’t the most common area of the body for a lesion.
Similar to COVID, you can theoretically get monkeypox by touching a surface that someone with the disease touched. However, this method of transmission, called fomite transmission, is uncommon.
“The average person is not at risk from store-bought clothes, for example, or from a fleeting interaction with an infected person, as some social media posts have suggested,” according to the New York Times.
And only people with symptoms are thought to spread monkeypox, and many of those people will be isolating at home (although this won’t always be the case because some people may mistake the bumps for something other than monkeypox).
4. Your kid isn’t likely to get monkeypox at school.
Close, prolonged contact doesn't really happen at schools. In Nigeria, where monkeypox has been around for a while, outbreaks don’t generally occur in the classroom, according to Time. Most kids who get monkeypox get it through household contacts rather than at school, according to Bloomberg. And that’s a good thing, because you can’t control what your child does at school, but you can control your own potential exposure to monkeypox. By limiting your risk, you limit your child’s.
5. Monkeypox isn’t a new threat like COVID.
COVID-19 is a novel disease. Part of the reason why fighting it is so difficult — and why it became a global pandemic that’s had major impacts on families for the past several years — is that we didn’t know anything about it before it appeared in 2020. We didn’t know how it spread, we didn't know how to protect ourselves from it, and we didn’t have vaccines or treatment. And while we don’t know everything about monkeypox, it’s been known since 1970, mainly confined to Western and Central Africa. Scientists have been studying the disease, and we have a lot of knowledge about it going into this fight — and vaccines and treatments at the ready, even if they’re not widely available yet.
6. When it’s time to really worry, your state will tell you.
You can check up-to-date U.S. monkeypox numbers at the CDC website. At the time of publication, all states but Wyoming and Montana had detected at least one case. However, some states have a much higher caseload than others. For example, California has detected 826 cases, whereas West Virginia has recorded 3. For information about the risk of monkeypox in your county, check with local health authorities. They’ll let you know if and when you need to up your precautions.