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Monkeypox and blood cancer

6th Jun 2022

Monkeypox cases are being identified in the UK. What is monkeypox and what does it mean for people with blood cancer?

Abstract representation of Monkeypox virus down a microscope.

Abstract representation of monkeypox virus down a microscope.


What is monkeypox?

Monkeypox is a virus that can affect animals and humans. It can spread from animals to humans, and it can spread from human to human.

Monkeypox is a virus from the same family as smallpox, which is the only infectious disease in humans to ever be totally eradicated. This was done through worldwide vaccination and surveillance.

Monkeypox is common in central and west Africa, where animals that carry monkeypox commonly live. Sometimes people from other parts of the world get monkeypox after travelling to regions where monkeypox is more common.

What’s different now, is that people are being diagnosed with monkeypox with no clear link to travel or contact with any infected person or animal. The World Health Organisation is currently trying to work out how the monkeypox is spreading.

It's important to remember that right now, monkeypox is still extremely rare in the UK, and it doesn't spread easily.

Monkeypox symptoms

Monkeypox symptoms include:

  • fever
  • headache
  • muscle aches
  • back pain
  • low energy
  • swollen glands (lymph nodes)
  • skin rash.

The monkeypox rash usually begins within a few days, before scabbing over. The rash often develops on the face, palms of the hands and soles of the feet. It can also develop on the mouth, genitals and eyes.

Monkeypox symptoms can last a few weeks. In most people, monkeypox will get better on its own without treatment. Some people are more at risk of getting more seriously ill with monkeypox however, including babies, children and people with a weaker immune system (immunosuppression). Anyone with blood cancer could have immunosuppression.

How monkeypox spreads

People with monkeypox are infectious while they have symptoms. You can catch monkeypox through close physical contact with someone who has symptoms. The rash and scabs are especially infectious. Clothing, bedding, towels or things like cutlery and cups can also carry the virus from one person to another. The virus can also spread through saliva.

Current understanding is that monkeypox is not easily spread, because it needs close physical contact to spread. This may be why it often spreads between people having sex or close intimate contact.

Unlike coronavirus, we don’t think monkeypox can spread so easily through the air, although it can spread by a cough or a sneeze. The World Health Organisation is looking at recent cases of monkeypox to work out how it is spreading more easily this time.

Anyone who has close physical contact with someone who has symptoms of monkeypox could catch the virus. People who were vaccinated against smallpox probably have some protection against monkeypox infection, but they could still catch it. Smallpox vaccinations were used in the UK until 1971.

Monkeypox treatment

Monkeypox usually gets better on its own. There aren’t any specific treatments routinely used for monkeypox, but a smallpox vaccination could help reduce symptoms. Other options include antivirals such as Tecovirimat and Cidofovir.

Monkeypox and the immune system

If you catch monkeypox and you have a weakened immune system (immunosuppression), you could be more at risk of the virus getting more serious. You might need to stay in hospital until you recover. There are hospitals around the UK that specialise in containing and treating imported illnesses.

Complications from severe cases of monkeypox include skin infections, pneumonia, sepsis, confusion and eye infections. People can die from monkeypox, but this is rare. In Nigeria, a 3% death rate was reported. We don’t know what this could be in the UK however, with a much better-funded health system.

If you get symptoms of monkeypox

If you think you have symptoms of monkeypox or have been in close contact with someone with monkeypox, tell your doctor, self-isolate if you can, and avoid close contact with others.

Monkeypox and blood cancer

At the moment, monkeypox in the UK is still extremely rare. It’s important to keep things in perspective, and to keep taking precautions to protect yourself from covid and other common infections, which continue to be a bigger risk to people with blood cancer.

If you think you have symptoms of monkeypox, tell your doctor or a sexual health clinic as soon as possible. Even if you don’t have monkeypox, any unusual symptoms should be checked, as you might have another virus or infection.

Any virus or infection can become more serious in people with blood cancer, because of the impact that blood cancer has on your immune system.

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