Sept. 12, 2022

Researchers ramp up response to rapid spread of monkeypox virus

UCalgary infectious disease expert John Gill talks about transmission, symptoms, prevention, and increased collaboration across medical disciplines
John Gill
John Gill Courtesy John Gill

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared monkeypox an escalating global outbreak and an international public health emergency on July 23, after more than 3,000 cases were confirmed in 47 countries, including Canada.

Monkeypox is an illness caused by the monkeypox virus. It can present as a range of symptoms, including a skin rash or lesions, fever and muscle ache. It is part of the same family of viruses that causes smallpox.

The illness tends to be self-limiting, meaning it usually goes away on its own. In rare cases involving the most severe symptoms, the disease has led to hospitalization and even death.

Dr. John Gill, MD, a professor with the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) is an internationally recognized expert in infectious disease and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) answers some pressing questions about monkeypox, including what researchers in Calgary are doing to better understand the disease, how it’s spread and ways to enhance disease prevention measures.

What we need to know

Q: How does someone contract monkeypox?

A: To contract monkeypox a person would need to be in contact with monkeypox lesions on the skin. Nose, mouth and genital areas are the most common route of infection in western countries (i.e., skin to skin).

While the initial cases in western countries have been predominately related to sexual activities (mainly to date in men who have sex with men), spread in the wider population has also been reported.

Other routes of infection such as inhaled droplets or contact with infected body fluids or surfaces are far less common but also potential routes for infection.

Q: What is the incubation period?

A: Typically, one to two weeks, but in rare cases it can be three weeks.

Q: Does a monkeypox infection have lasting side effects?

A: This has yet to be clarified due to the brief period patients have been followed in the current outbreak, but scarring and chronic pain have been described. In some people who are immune compromised, the lesions are severely painful and can require hospitalization.

Q: What advice do you have for someone to help protect themselves from contracting monkeypox?

A: As with all infectious diseases, always exhibit good hand hygiene to reduce the risk of virus transmission. With respect to monkeypox specifically, avoid skin-to-skin contact with skin lesions that might be considered to have potential to house the virus.

Q: Would you describe the monkeypox outbreak during summer of 2022 as rare or unusual?

A: It’s unusual that the virus has spread so rapidly through many western countries over a very short time period. It appears to be more virulent than in the past. These factors led the WHO to declare it an emergency, which is certainly a rarity.

Where do we go from here?

Q: What are UCalgary researchers doing to address the monkeypox situation locally?

A: Our health-care system has the capacity to properly address the monkeypox situation that is presenting in our city.

CSM has biosafety labs, research and faculty expertise and clinical partnerships across a range of disciplines to enable patient care and research into monkeypox. These disciplines include clinical virology, dermatology, internal medicine, community health, health economics and infectious disease.

Due to the many outstanding research questions that remain from the current monkeypox outbreak, a clinical and research collaboration has been established to start to address questions posed by further spread of the virus.

Q: Tell us more about the research collaboration you are forming in response to monkeypox.

A: CSM researchers are partnering with Alberta Health Services and Alberta Precision Labs to evaluate the need for greater diagnostic and treatment pathways in the event of further outbreak. Our goal is to optimize and streamline care for those who may have been exposed or acquired monkeypox infection. This will lead to research opportunities in areas of public heath epidemiology, diagnostics, pathogenesis, prevention, and treatment.

Q: How does your research feed into national and international efforts to protect vulnerable populations from monkeypox?

A: We are already networked internationally and have access to care and research protocols used in Europe and around the world.

Editor’s Note: There is a plan to rename the monkeypox virus due to stigma and in August the WHO asked the public for help in selecting the new name. Learn more.

John Gill is a professor in the departments of Medicine and Microbiology, Immunology and Infectious Diseases. He is a member of the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases. He is the medical director of the Southern Alberta HIV Clinic and a member of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research HIV Trials Network.