An Update on Monkeypox

August 9, 2022

Harvard University Health Services (HUHS) continues to monitor the rise in monkeypox cases which prompted the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United States government to issue health emergency declarations. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), thousands in the U.S. have contracted the illness, including many cases in Massachusetts. This is an evolving situation. 

Students and other HUHS patients seeking vaccine referral or evaluation for suspected monkeypox infection or exposure should contact HUHS at (617) 495-5711 for phone assessment and instructions.

What Are the Symptoms?

Monkeypox symptoms include a pimple or blister-like rash as well as fever, fatigue, and swollen lymph nodes. The CDC has examples of these rashes and blisters on their website. 

How Is Monkeypox Transmitted?

The virus does not spread through a casual interaction like hugging. It is spread through close, personal, often skin-to-skin contact. Direct skin-to-skin contact can happen during intimate contact. People who do not have symptoms are not considered infectious.

In this current outbreak, many of the cases are among social networks of people who self-identify as gay or bisexual and other men who have sex with men. As noted above, intimate contact (kissing, cuddling, and sex) is one route of transmission. Other modes of transmission include direct contact with infectious rashes, scabs, or body fluids and touching items (linens and clothing) previously touched by infectious rashes or body fluids. More on the illness can be found on Mass General Brigham’s monkeypox webpage

How Can I Reduce the Risk of Contracting Monkeypox?

At this time, the risk of monkeypox in the United States is believed to be low. However, you can reduce your risk of contracting the virus by:

  • Avoiding close contact with people who are infected with monkeypox or their personal belongings, such as their bedding or laundry.
  • Washing your hands often and thoroughly.
  • Wearing a mask and gloves or other protection when caring for someone who has monkeypox or symptoms of the disease.

Additionally, those who have multiple or anonymous sex partners may be at increased risk of contracting monkeypox. Limiting your number of sex partners may reduce your exposure risk. Learn about monkeypox and sexual health here.

Is There a Vaccine?

Yes. If you are at increased risk of contracting monkeypox, the JYNNEOS vaccine (also known as Imvamune or Imvanex) is available via the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (MDPH). The vaccine is administered in two doses, 28 days (about 4 weeks) apart although limited supply might cause MDPH to recommend delaying the second dose. In order to obtain the vaccine, a health care provider will need to perform a risk and exposure assessment. Once the provider confirms your eligibility, you can make your own appointment.

Please be aware that there is currently a limited supply of JYNNEOS. Vaccination is prioritized for individuals at the highest risk of exposure to monkeypox.

What Happens If I Test Positive?

If you test positive, notify HUHS. Additionally, if you have had known exposure, do not wait for symptoms to start before notifying HUHS. 

Persons infected with monkeypox should isolate until all skin lesions have resolved, the scabs have fallen off, and a fresh layer of intact skin has formed. The length of isolation will vary from patient to patient and may last 21 days (about 3 weeks) or more. 

If a member of the Harvard community who lives off campus tests positive for monkeypox, they should isolate in their home. If you live on campus, HUHS will work with you and your School/Unit to manage your isolation. 

People infected with the virus often have a mild disease that does not require treatment. There are no monkeypox-specific treatments, but antivirals—such as tecovirimat (TPOXX)—may be recommended for people who are more likely to get severely ill. People with weakened immune systems, children under eight years of age, people with a history of skin disorders like eczema, and people who are pregnant or breastfeeding may be more likely to get seriously ill. If you become infected with monkeypox and meet criteria for antiviral treatment, your health care provider may recommend TPOXX.