Monkeypox: Top 5 Myths, Debunked

The monkeypox outbreak is growing in the US. Here are the facts.

Jessica Rendall Wellness Writer
Jessica is a writer on the Wellness team with a focus on health news. Before CNET, she worked in local journalism covering public health issues, business and music.
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Jessica Rendall
5 min read
The monkeypox virus under a microscope
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Getting the right information is crucial when it comes to matters of health, but the presence of an infectious disease in a community has a way of fueling misinformation like wildfire. And in bigger outbreaks, like the 2022 monkeypox outbreak that's now officially a global health emergency, the spread of misinformation can be dangerous. 

While monkeypox isn't a new disease, certain aspects of this outbreak set it apart from previous cases. With that, there are several things we know to be true about the way this disease behaves overall.

These are a few common monkeypox myths, debunked.

Myth: Only gay men are at risk of monkeypox

While it's true that the majority of people getting sick with monkeypox right now are men who have sex with men, anyone can get monkeypox regardless of sexual orientation, age, gender or whatever other demographic you can throw at the disease.

The reason it's affecting mostly gay men right now is because, in an uncharacteristic move, monkeypox is currently spreading mostly through sexual contact. Because people who have sex with men have physical contact or intimacy with other gay or bisexual men, the disease has so far mostly been sighted and contained within that community. 

But cases have been reported in other demographics, including women and children. Monkeypox can spread to anyone engaged in close contact with a monkeypox-infected person, like someone who lives with them. And health officials fear that shame may deter people from seeking the care they need, including treatments or vaccines if they're exposed. The misbelief that only gay men can get monkeypox could also cause us to ignore spread of the disease in other communities, which may make the outbreak harder to contain.

Read more: Monkeypox: What Gay and Bisexual Men Need to Know

Myth: Monkeypox is easy to catch

Unlike a respiratory virus that spreads relatively easily in a room full of people who aren't touching each other (like COVID-19), monkeypox requires close physical contact to spread. That is, someone typically needs to be in direct contact with a person with monkeypox symptoms in order to catch it, or in direct contact with their clothes or another fabric or surface a monkeypox rash has touched. Examples of people who could be exposed to monkeypox if you had it are your sexual partner... or the roommate you share a hand towel with every day.

The virus that causes monkeypox can survive, however, on surfaces -- particularly in dark, cool, low-humidity environments, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Because of this, it might be theoretically possible that someone could catch monkeypox from a contaminated surface, but the current likelihood of this remains low. Part of this could be the reason that the amount of virus the person is exposed to plays a part in whether they're infected (sharing a bed every night for a week with a person with monkeypox would be a lot more exposure than touching a public surface once, for example). Direct, skin-to-skin contact, including sexual contact, is the predominant way people have been exposed to monkeypox during this outbreak, according to the CDC. 

"It's not a situation where if you're passing someone at a grocery store, they're gonna be at risk for monkeypox," Dr. Jennifer McQuiston, deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Division of High Consequence Pathogens and Pathology, said at a May briefing with the CDC. 

Read more: What to Do if You Think You Have Monkeypox 

A health care worker vaccinates someone with Jynneos

There's a monkeypox vaccine available for people at higher risk of getting the disease. This week, health officials changed the way it can be given in an effort to spread out a low supply and vaccinate more people. 

MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News/Getty Images

Myth: Monkeypox is a new disease

In short: No. Several African countries have been battling monkeypox for years, and the disease is endemic in some regions (in other words, it circulates year-round within one area). The first human case of monkeypox was detected in the 1970s, and there was a small (47-case) outbreak in the US in 2003 linked to imported pet prairie dogs. Prior to the 2022 outbreak, most cases of monkeypox were found in rural, remote areas and linked to direct contact with animals that can spread the disease.

Another thing that sets this outbreak apart is that monkeypox cases are spreading in countries where it isn't normally found without a link to international travel (like the US, Canada and select European countries). It's also mostly spreading through intimate contact and being detected in adult men. More cases in earlier outbreaks were in children, and human-to-human transmission was lower.

The current monkeypox outbreak might be linked to a case detected by a Nigerian infectious disease doctor in 2017, NPR reported. Dr. Dimie Ogoina identified a case with characteristics that more closely resemble monkeypox now. Ogoina then noticed the outbreak in Nigeria had spread between men with a link to sexual contact, as opposed to increasing cases among children who are more at risk of severe disease (and had been typically impacted in monkeypox-endemic countries). His and his teammates' warnings to the broader medical community may have fallen on deaf ears as the outbreak spread beyond Nigeria, according to the report. 

Myth: Monkeypox is causing another lockdown in the US

The Biden administration declared monkeypox a national public health emergency on Aug. 4. The federal move is supposed to open up more money and funding for resources, including vaccines and testing, and encourage more information-sharing between the local, state and federal levels. It doesn't mean that states or cities will issue stay-at-home orders like they did for COVID-19 before vaccines and treatments became available, however. Unlike monkeypox, COVID-19 was a completely new virus that continues to spread easily between people who may have mild or no symptoms. 

Read more: Everything We Know About Monkeypox

Two people grab each other's wrists against a dark blue background

Monkeypox has been spreading mostly through direct, skin-to-skin contact.

Kelvin Murray/Getty Images

Myth: There are no monkeypox treatments available 

In 2019 the US Food and Drug Administration approved Jynneos, a vaccine for monkeypox and smallpox prevention for people at higher risk of getting these diseases. This vaccine is now being given out to people at higher risk of catching monkeypox, though the rollout has been riddled with supply issues, and appointments have been hard to come by for many. 

There's also another smallpox vaccine that can also be used against monkeypox called ACAM2000. However, this is an older live virus vaccine that isn't safe for all people, including the immunocompromised and people with certain skin conditions like eczema. Treatments that have been used to treat smallpox are also thought to work against monkeypox. While most people will be able to recover from monkeypox at home without medical intervention, some people at higher risk of severe disease, like folks who are immunocompromised, may be prescribed an antiviral.

Read more: Monkeypox Cases Up Over 40% This Week: Here Are the Symptoms to Look For

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.