Monkeypox is not an African disease nor is it a gay disease, emphasized Welkin Johnson, chair of the biology department at Boston College—it is an infectious disease.
“Nobody should assume that if they get a rash, it couldn’t be monkeypox because they’re not part of some group,” Johnson said. “Everybody is at risk.”
The World Health Organization declared monkeypox a public health emergency on July 23. Cases have been confirmed on college campuses across the country, including Pennsylvania State University, Bucknell University, and the University of Texas at Austin, among others. BC has yet to report any cases of monkeypox.
Monkeypox is a viral disease that typically spreads through skin-to-skin contact. Symptoms of monkeypox—including fever, chills, exhaustion, aches, respiratory symptoms such as a cough or sore throat, and a rash that can appear as pimples or blisters—can last up to four weeks.
“My prediction is it will show up on campus,” Johnson said. “I think it will, but I don’t think it’ll take off. Just because it shows up in somebody in a dorm doesn’t mean everybody else in the dorm is going to get it.”
Phillip Landrigan, director of BC’s Global Observatory on Planetary Health and global public health program, said he strongly advises students to follow recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to avoid skin-to-skin contact with anyone with a rash that looks like monkeypox, contact with their clothing or utensils, and to wash hands frequently.
“Don’t share towels, don’t share bedding, [and] wash things as frequently as possible,” Johnson said.
BC students are not as likely to contract monkeypox at athletic events and concerts as they were to contract COVID-19, according to Landrigan. Still, he said students should follow CDC precautions.
“Students are safe attending public events like football games or going to the gym because unlike COVID, airborne transmission is not the predominant mode of spread,” he said.
Students should immediately report to University Health Services (UHS) for testing and avoid close contact with others if they develop a rash consistent with monkeypox, Landrigan said.
“Testing for monkeypox at all medical facilities is a dry swab of the rash,” said Director of University Health Services Doug Comeau. “The swab is then sent to the [Massachusetts] health department’s external laboratory for analysis.”
According to BC’s monkeypox Q&A, students and community members who test positive for monkeypox will be required to isolate at home or in their apartment for a minimum of 21 days. Those who are exposed but do not test positive will not be required to isolate.
“UHS will work with affected students who live on campus to help manage their isolation,” the Q&A reads.
Unlike COVID-19, there is currently no evidence that monkeypox can spread by asymptomatic individuals, Johnson said.
“This isn’t something where you have to be nervous walking around going to the cafeteria because if somebody’s got it, they probably know,” Johnson said. “Therefore, they’re probably going to be sent home or in isolation.”
Though monkeypox is not a sexually transmitted disease, it can spread through sexual contact, according to Landrigan.
“In a series of 528 cases from around the world reported in the August 25 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine, the authors state that ‘Transmission was suspected to have occurred through sexual activity in 95 percent of the persons with infection,’” Landrigan said.
While many cases of monkeypox have been reported among gay and bisexual men, it can infect people of all sexual orientations.
“When it comes to viruses they don’t care,” Johnson said. “They don’t respect borders, they don’t respect boundaries, they’ll go wherever they go.”
People with fewer sexual partners are less likely to contract monkeypox, according to Johnson. He also said it is important for people to be aware if their partners’ are feeling unwell.
“For me, it would come down to trusting the people that I’m with,” Johnson said.
Though there are monkeypox vaccines available, only those most at risk of exposure to an individual with monkeypox can currently receive them in Massachusetts. It is unlikely that BC will require students to receive the vaccine, Johnson said.
“Unlike COVID, where there was a huge probability that all of us would be exposed, monkeypox would be relatively limited,” he said.
Comeau said BC community members should continue to protect themselves and stay vigilant.
“While monkeypox has had relatively low transmissibility rates in the United States of just over 18,000 and 0 confirmed deaths, we encourage all members of the University community to be informed about the virus and to heed the precautions issued by the CDC,” Comeau said.