More than 22,000 monkeypox cases exist in nearly 80 countries now, according to the Centers for Disease Control. San Francisco and New York state and city have declared monkeypox a public health emergency. Los Angeles officials are still evaluating.
This outbreak is largely affecting men who have sex with men.
But the World Health Organization says nearly 85 children have been infected globally, including a toddler in California. As children return to classrooms and are in close contact during the school day, there are concerns that cases will increase.
The likeliest way for monkeypox to spread is during direct, skin-to-skin contact with lesions on the body, meaning transmission isn’t limited to sexual behavior. The virus can also live on common household items, such as sheets and towels. That’s all according to Dr. Jay Varma, epidemiologist and professor at Weill Cornell Medicine.
Unlike COVID, the virus isn’t extremely communicable via long-range exposure, but Varma says it has been detected in the throat and saliva.
As a result, Varma says positive monkeypox cases in kids is a reminder and warning that no one is immune to the virus.
“We know no disease stays in a limited social network, right? It doesn't stay in a given country. And it doesn't stay among a group of people that have sex with each other. It's always going to spill over into other parts of the community,” Varma explains. “If we let this disease continue to spread, there is a strong possibility that there will be more kids infected.”
Kids infected could be on sports teams, in theater troupes or daycares, he notes.
Varma admits that there is still much to learn about monkeypox, and current data from Africa shows that some kids have died from the virus. But access to health care in many of those countries is vastly different than the U.S.
“We know from other diseases like Ebola that the death rates that occur in many African countries are much, much lower here in the U.S.,” he says.
Still, he emphasizes, “This isn't a disease you want your kids to get. There is a risk of severe illness from this. It can cause damage to other organ systems, but we don't really know for sure what that's going to look like in the U.S. compared to the data from other countries.”
While monkeypox vaccines are available, they haven’t been tested in children or pregnant women, he notes, and the CDC has authorized their use in close contact cases.
The U.S. was also as prepared as it could’ve been for monkeypox, Varma says. That’s because it's invested a significant amount of money to study the disease, stockpile vaccines, and make tests available.