Although President Joe Biden said Sunday that Americans should be concerned about monkeypox, I would warn that excess hype can be destructive when we have zero evidence that the outbreak will rocket out of control.
In fact, Biden sent a more reassuring message Monday, citing the smallpox vaccine's effectiveness on monkeypox: "I just don't think it rises to the level of the kind of concern that existed with COVID-19.”
The United States and the world were woefully unprepared for the COVID-19 pandemic, and the World Health Organization was too slow to warn us about the danger, but that doesn’t mean every emerging pathogen will cause the next pandemic.
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The more than 90 cases of monkeypox that the WHO has confirmed are just the tip of the iceberg. But the spread appears to be limited, and the cases were likely transmitted through close contact from sex or while traveling.
Monkeypox is much milder than smallpox
Early examination of the genetic structure of this monkeypox strain links it to an outbreak in Africa in 2017, without a substantial mutation to cause significantly increased transmission.
Monkeypox is a much milder disease than smallpox and generally spreads the most once the patient is symptomatic with fever, fatigue, flu-like symptoms, lymph node swelling and then a pustular rash. A good public health strategy is to identify the disease, isolate those with the illness for three weeks and carefully trace those who have been in contact with the infected person.
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The traditional smallpox vaccine has been found to be at least 85% effective against monkeypox. Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and one of the top immunologists in the world, wrote in an email to me that “the vaccines that we have for smallpox in the Strategic National Stockpile are good. We have also developed a newer one.”
He referred to WetVax, of which the United States has enough vaccine for every American, according to a Health and Human Services Department spokesperson, and the newer Jynneos vaccine, which is licensed for both smallpox and monkeypox.
Several anti-viral drugs have shown to be useful against monkeypox, including cidofovir and brincidofovir. So we already have a full array of useful weapons against a virus first identified in 1958, a far cry from what we experienced with SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19.
Fauci noted America's vaccine reserves
The outbreak, though concerning, could be partly due to the fact the traditional smallpox live virus vaccine hasn’t been given routinely to children since 1972. But, as Fauci stated, we have an ample reserve to vaccinate the entire country if needed.
What we don’t need is more fear and panic, which have crippled us during COVID. Calm assessment is the way to go here, with all the tools we need in hand to fight a new threat.
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Unfortunately our fear radar is broken, our negative imaginations are quickly engaged, and we jump to the worst-case scenario right away. We are all on the alert to any emerging contagion because of COVID, whether the president reminds us or not.
What we can learn from COVID’s PCR and rapid testing delays is the great importance of decentralized, widely available testing. Public health requires an accurate assessment of the number of cases, the ease of spread and the severity of illness before we can accurately identify and fight any infectious disease.
We have a PCR test now to identify monkeypox; it needs to be made widely available without delay.
Dr. Marc Siegel, a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors and a Fox News medical correspondent, is a professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Health. His latest book, "COVID: the Politics of Fear and the Power of Science," was published last fall. Follow him on Twitter: @DrMarcSiegel
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Monkeypox threat is real. But we have medicines needed to fight it.