What is monkeypox, the rare virus now confirmed in the U.S. and Europe?

As monkeypox cases rise in Europe and other parts of the globe, health authorities are expressing concern about the unusual uptick. (Video: Alexa Juliana Ard, Meryl Kornfield/The Washington Post)

As monkeypox cases rise in Europe and other parts of the globe, health authorities are expressing concern about the unusual uptick but also pointing out that the virus is far less transmissible than the coronavirus that upended the world.

This year, more than 1,600 monkeypox cases have been confirmed and nearly 1,500 more are suspected, according to data that 39 countries — including Canada, several European nations and the United States — sent to the World Health Organization. Most of those, 32, had not previously reported infections, raising concern among the global health community that the virus is not behaving as it normally had.

Last week, the White House said that there were at least 45 cases identified in 15 states and D.C. The number of infections is expected to surpass that of a 2003 outbreak, which would make it the biggest outbreak the United States has faced.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an alert last month, urging doctors and state health departments to be vigilant.

Days later, President Biden said that the United States had sufficient vaccines to fight a serious outbreak, and that quarantine would not be necessary to contain the spread.

“I just don’t think it rises to the level of the kind of concern that existed with covid-19, and the smallpox vaccine works for it,” Biden said at a news conference.

The fact that cases are emerging in several countries at once — with signs of “sustained” transmission in people — is striking, said Aris Katzourakis, a professor of evolution and genomics at the University of Oxford. However, epidemiologists note that monkeypox doesn’t spread easily: Outbreaks are generally small, and an existing smallpox vaccine could help protect people if needed.

The general risk to the public is considered “very, very low,” said Tom Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

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