monkeypox - cdc image

Polk County has three known cases of monkeypox, all reported this month, according to the Florida Department of Health. The virus is spreading globally, and it was declared “a public health emergency of international concern” by the World Health Organization on Saturday.

Monkeypox is a virus that is similar but less severe than smallpox and endemic in several countries in Central and Western Africa. There have been more than 16,000 cases from 75 countries and territories and five deaths, according to the World Health Organization. In the United States, there have been 2,891 cases as of Friday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The first reported case in Polk County was reported around the first of July, according to Dr. Joy Jackson, who oversees the Florida Department of Health in Polk and Hardee counties. “I think it’s likely our numbers will increase,” she said.

A Florida Department of Health database lets users track monkeypox and other reportable diseases in all 67 Florida counties.

According to Jackson, the three people who have contracted monkeypox in Polk County are between ages 35 and 69. Two of them acquired the virus in Florida; for the other case, Jackson said there is less information about where they caught it, but she said it wasn’t travel-related.

Jackson said she isn’t specifying where the three people who’ve contracted the virus live, if the three cases were from the same household, or if they were in a relationship or their sexual orientation.

“At this point in Florida, the vast majority of cases are amongst gay and bisexual men. But the important thing is that monkeypox can infect anyone,” she said.

Jackson said health officials are working with several organizations to get the word out to the LGBTQ community. They are also telling healthcare practices to be on the lookout.

“A lot of our efforts and energy right now is working with the population that’s most impacted. Getting messaging out to gay and bisexual men, their potential partners, through our specialty care clinic, through our outreach workers,” Jackson said. “We really need to get the message out there to the public of what the risks are. We do not want to create stigma … I don’t want anyone to feel that they’re immune to this or won’t get it because they’re not gay or bisexual, but the risk is extremely low.”

Cases have also been reported in nearby counties. As of Friday, Orange County has had 12 reported cases, Pinellas County has had 13 reported cases, and Hillsborough County has had five reported cases, according to Florida Charts,

Statewide, there have been 260 reported cases, with most cases originating in Broward and Miami-Dade counties. Florida has the third highest case count, behind New York and California, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Jackson said the virus isn’t highly transmissible, and is usually spread through direct, close person-to-person contact.

“Choose your sexual partners carefully. Question potential partners about whether they’ve been sick or if they’ve got a new rash … Now is not the time to take risks because monkeypox is out there. You really don’t want it,” Dr. Jackson said. “Now particularly, is a very good time to be more than highly selective.”

Since the virus leads to a rash and lesions, Jackson said it can also be spread through contaminated items such as towels and sheets.

“Sharing sheets in a bed or sharing towels in a bathroom, it would have to be fairly fresh contamination but that is possible. That is not the major way it’s spread but it can happen,” Jackson said.

Symptoms of monkeypox include fever, muscle aches, lymph node swelling; Jackson said these symptoms typically appear one to four days before the skin breaks out in a rash that goes through several phases.

“For the most part, it’s highly unlikely anyone would get it from being coughed or sneezed on in a public area. It’s more related to close intimate person to person contact or potential exposure to open wounds or scabs,” Jackson said.

She said there can be as many as one lesion or many all over the body. It’s been reported the lesions are painful.

Jackson advises people to contact their primary care provider or visit an urgent care immediately if they notice these symptoms and request to be tested. The test involves vigorously rubbing a swab over a lesion.

Once tested, Jackson said, it’s important the individual stays in isolation until they get their result, which Jackson said could take one to two days. If the test comes back positive, she advises them to remain in isolation at home until the lesions scab and heal  and there is fresh new skin underneath and they’re cleared by their doctor. She said it could take anywhere from two to four weeks for the lesions to heal.

“As long as there are active lesions … those things can shed virus. We want it to be as short as possible, but we want to keep people safe which means there needs to be new fresh skin and all the scabs be gone,” Jackson said.

The Health Department is interviewing people who test positive, in order to locate close contacts. Close contacts can take the vaccine, Jynneos, and if given within four days of exposure, Jackson said it could prevent infection. If received between four and 14 days after exposure, Jackson said it could reduce the severity of the infection. The Florida Department of Health in Polk County has about 100 vaccine doses, Jackson said. She hopes the federal government will distribute more. The Health Department is also issuing the vaccine to people who are at highest risk for contracting severe disease, such as those who have HIV.

For treatment, Jackson said in most cases, people who have contracted the virus have to let it run its course and may take Tylenol for pain reduction. For severe cases, she said people can get a prescription from their doctor for Tecovirimat, which is called Tpoxx for short, which she said the Health Department has a limited quantity of. It is a drug used to treat smallpox, which is genetically similar to monkeypox.

According to the CDC, infection from monkeypox is rarely fatal; over 99 precent who get the disease survive. “People with weakened immune systems, children under 8 years of age, people with a history of eczema, and people who are pregnant or breastfeeding may be more likely to get seriously ill or die,” the CDC says on its website.

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Stephanie Claytor has been a broadcast and digital journalist in Lakeland since 2016, covering Polk County for Bay News 9 and currently free-lancing for LkldNow. She is an author of travel and children's books.

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