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UPDATED: Monkeypox in Austria: What causes it and is it serious?

Amanda Previdelli
Amanda Previdelli - [email protected]
UPDATED: Monkeypox in Austria: What causes it and is it serious?
This 2003 electron microscope image made available by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows mature, oval-shaped monkeypox virions. Photo: Cynthia S. Goldsmith, Russell Regner/CDC/AP

After Austria confirmed its first case of monkeypox in Vienna at the weekend, the Ministry of Health has now recommended quarantine rules for close contacts with symptoms. Here is what you need to know about the disease.

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Editor's note: in September 2022, Austria received doses of a monkeypox vaccine. You can read more about this here: EXPLAINED: How to register for the monkeypox vaccine in Vienna.

A 35-year-old man was confirmed as the first case of monkeypox in Austria this Sunday, 22nd, according to Viennese medical authorities.

The man is isolated in a clinic in the Favoriten district and "is doing well under the circumstances", health authorities said. On Sunday, the patient went to the clinic with a slight fever and isolated skin lesions.

This is the first case in Austria of a "multi-country monkeypox outbreak in non-endemic countries", as the World Health Organisation (WHO) says.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How Austria's compulsory vaccine mandate could be back in June

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The monkeypox virus is well known but endemic to isolated regions in Africa. Experts are still unsure why the disease has been spreading outside of Africa in people with no connection to the affected areas.

What is monkeypox?

Monkeypox, Affenpocken in German, is a zoonotic virus (a virus spread from animals to humans) that most often occurs in areas of tropical rainforest in Central and West Africa. However, it is occasionally found in other regions, and cases have recently been discovered in Europe, North America, and Australia.

The name monkeypox originates from the initial discovery of the virus in monkeys in a Danish laboratory in 1958, according to WHO. The first human case was identified in a child in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1970.

READ ALSO: Everything foreigners need to know about the Austrian healthcare system

How is it transmitted?

Monkeypox virus is transmitted from one person to another by close contact with lesions, body fluids, respiratory droplets and contaminated materials such as bedding. The incubation period of monkeypox is usually from 6 to 13 days but can range from 5 to 21 days.

People can also be infected through contact with the lesions of the skin, blood, tissues, or excretions of infected animals (mainly rodents) and by handling the meat of sick animals.

The disease is not known to be sexually transmitted. Still, close contact between people during sex can make the transmission of the virus easier.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What is Austria's 'tick vaccine', and should you take it?

Many of the cases presented are in men who have sexual relations with other men and health authorities have asked for extra care and are studying current cases.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of monkeypox include fever, headache, muscle aches, swollen lymph nodes, chills, and exhaustion. In addition, a rash similar to chickenpox typically develops, often starting on the face and spreading to other parts of the body, including the genitals.

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Monkeypox typically has an incubation period of six to 16 days, but it can be as long as 21 days. Once lesions have scabbed over and fallen off, the person with the virus is no longer infectious.

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Monkeypox is usually self-limiting, and people recover in a few weeks, but it may be severe in some individuals, such as children, pregnant women, or persons with immune suppression due to other health conditions.

What are the guidelines from the Ministry of Health?

On Tuesday May 24th, Austria's Ministry of Health published a set of guidelines, including a three-week quarantine for close contacts of positive cases that are showing symptoms.

The isolation period can be completed at home or at hospital, depending on the state of health of the patient.

Furthermore, contacts of a positive case will be treated as either Type I or Type II in a move similar to the management of Covid-19 contacts.

Type I contacts are considered as high-risk and include those who have had direct contact with skin lesions of an infected person, such as sexual partners, but also close passengers on planes, buses or trains for a period of at least eight hours. 

High-risk contacts do not have to isolate straight away but must monitor their condition for 21 days through a daily phone call with the health authorities. If symptoms occur, then the person has to quarantine for three weeks and a PCR test has to be carried out.

Type II contacts are short social contacts, such as work colleagues (not in the same office), or fleeting contacts in gyms, saunas or bathrooms. These contacts must monitor their health for 21 days.

How can I protect myself and others?

There is no specific vaccine against this virus that would be widely available, but the common smallpox vaccine already offers high protection and is recommended for close contacts and health workers.

"Historically, vaccination against smallpox had been shown to be protective against monkeypox. While one vaccine (MVA-BN) and one specific treatment (tecovirimat) were approved for monkeypox, in 2019 and 2022 respectively, these countermeasures are not yet widely available.", according to the World Health Organisation.

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For now, there are no large vaccination campaigns for smallpox, and WHO is convening experts to discuss recommendations on vaccination.

"Steps for self-protection include avoiding skin to skin or face to face contact with anyone who has symptoms, practising safer sex, keeping hands clean with water and soap or alcohol-based hand rub, and maintaining respiratory etiquette", according to the World Health Organisation.

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If people develop a rash, accompanied by fever or a feeling of discomfort or illness, they should contact their health care provider and get tested for monkeypox, the organisation added.

READ ALSO: Reader question: Do I need to wear a mask on flights to/from Austria?

If someone is suspected or confirmed as having monkeypox, they should isolate until the scabs have fallen off and abstain from sex, including oral sex.

During this period, patients can get supportive treatment to ease monkeypox symptoms.

Anyone caring for a person sick with monkeypox should use appropriate personal protective measures, including wearing a mask and cleaning objects and surfaces that have been touched.

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