Whatcom County prepares for monkeypox arrival

Vaccines, tests already available
August 1, 2022 at 1:45 p.m.

Staff Reporter

Monkeypox has not yet been detected in Whatcom County, but residents should expect it to arrive here soon, said Dr. Greg Thompson, co-health officer at the Whatcom County Health Department. 

Monkeypox is a viral disease that causes blistering rashes, fever and swollen lymph nodes, among other symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is endemic in several West African countries but has been creeping across non-endemic countries over the past few months.  

Monkeypox spreads through prolonged direct contact with a symptomatic person or their respiratory secretions, or indirect contact through surfaces or clothing items, or contact with infected animals, according to the CDC.

The disease is rarely fatal, with about 99% of patients likely to survive, according to the CDC. However, monkeypox can cause severe pain and permanent scarring in some patients. 

“So far, most people fully recover, although some are hospitalized,” Thompson wrote in an email. “[Hospitalizations are] usually for pain management, treatment of dehydration because [patients] can’t drink with sores in the mouth or throat, or treatment of bacterial infections that occur when they have broken skin from monkeypox sores.” 

Pregnant people, immunocompromised people and children under 8 are all at higher risk of complications, Thompson wrote. 

The county is prepared for the disease with tests, vaccines and education for medical providers and the public, Thompson said. Commercial tests are already available locally, and Whatcom County has 40 doses of the vaccine ready should the need arise. Vaccines and treatments previously developed for smallpox are also effective against monkeypox, giving public health officials an important advantage in fighting the spread. 

Whatcom County is currently planning to make vaccine doses available only to individuals who are in close contact to those infected, due to a relatively small supply, Thompson said. 

But when vaccine stock increases, it may become available to people who have not been exposed but appear to be at increased risk, particularly gay and bisexual men with multiple sexual partners, Thompson said. 

“At this point ... the most cases have been in gay and bisexual men, but there have been cases outside of that group as well, women and children even,” he said. “It’s not a disease that is necessarily restricted to a specific group, but so far that’s kind of the social network that it’s been spreading within.” 

Thompson emphasized that the disease is not exclusively a sexually transmitted disease. But, he said, it is comparatively easy to catch monkeypox through sex due to prolonged skin-to-skin contact. 

Thompson said he was unsure how impactful the disease will be in Whatcom County, but said the monkeypox outbreak is not analogous to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“It’s a disease we’ve dealt with before … and we also have vaccines and treatments already available that show effectiveness against monkeypox,” he said. 

Thompson added that slowing down the disease will likely be easier than slowing the spread of COVID-19.  

“There are a lot of things we can do to reduce the spread of monkeypox,” he said. “Monkeypox spreads while people have symptoms, so if people can be identified and can isolate and avoid high-risk activities ... it should be easier to slow down than COVID.” 

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