Was monkeypox created in a lab? Can you get it from going in a swimming pool? Are only gay and bisexual men at risk of catching it?
You’ve probably heard a lot of talk lately about monkeypox. But it’s important to separate fact from fiction. So, what’s true and what’s false?
Here are 10 monkeypox myths that you shouldn’t believe.
Myth #1: Monkeypox was created in a lab.
Fact: Monkeypox is a zoonotic disease, meaning it can be transmitted from animals to humans. Though nobody really knows which animal acts as the reservoir for monkeypox or how it was first transmitted to a human, it certainly was not created by scientists in a lab.
Monkeypox comes from the same family of viruses that includes smallpox and, in the United States, has historically been associated with travel to certain countries in central and western Africa, where it is considered endemic.
Myth #2: Monkeypox is a new disease.
Fact: The monkeypox virus was first identified in 1958 in monkeys (hence the name), and the first human cases were documented in the 1970s. Though not an infection that occurs naturally in the United States, monkeypox was not unheard of before now.
Monkeypox first appeared in the United States in 2003 during a multi-state outbreak. Those cases were all linked to pet prairie dogs infected by rodents and other small mammals imported from Ghana. All 47 people infected with monkeypox in this outbreak had direct contact with the infected prairie dogs, and no person-to-person infection occurred. This outbreak was contained through a combination of testing, contact tracing, smallpox vaccines and new restrictions on animal imports.
There were also two recent, unrelated U.S. cases among travelers from Nigeria in 2021. One occurred in Texas, and the other was in Maryland. But no additional infections were reported as a result of either case.
Myth #3: You can get monkeypox from a swimming pool.
Fact: You cannot get monkeypox just by going in a swimming pool. However, if you are in close physical contact with someone who has monkeypox lesions, you could become infected. Likewise, if you use an unwashed towel or other pool item that came into contact with a person’s monkeypox lesions, you could become infected. Items such as bedding, clothing and other objects may be contaminated with the virus, too, if someone with monkeypox uses them.
Myth #4: You can get monkeypox from being in a crowd.
Fact: Unlike COVID-19, monkeypox is not known to linger in the air, and it is not nearly as infectious. Additionally, monkeypox does not spread during short periods of shared airspace with someone infected with it. So, walking through a crowded restaurant or store is not sufficient to contract the virus.
However, if you are in a tight space with prolonged person-to-person contact, like at a crowded music venue or club, your risk of contracting monkeypox from an infected individual increases. Monkeypox can also be transmitted from person to person through saliva and large respiratory droplets, but this requires prolonged face-to-face contact — such as close talking or kissing — with someone who has it.
Myth #5: Monkeypox is deadly.
Fact: While monkeypox lesions can look similar to smallpox lesions, monkeypox infections are much milder, and are only very rarely fatal. The number of deaths attributable to monkeypox from the 2022 outbreak is still in the single digits worldwide, and no deaths have occurred in the U.S.
That being said, the symptoms can be severe in some patients, as well as painful and very unpleasant, so it’s wise to try to avoid an infection.
Myth #6: Monkeypox is a sexually transmitted disease.
Fact: Person-to-person transmission of monkeypox is through close, direct contact with the lesions, rash, scabs or certain bodily fluids of someone who has monkeypox. This description could certainly apply to sexual activity, but exposure can also occur when people just share a household or are in close physical proximity, such as spouses or young children who sleep in the same bed. While monkeypox can be transmitted during sex, it does not only require sexual intercourse to be transmitted.
Myth #7: Only gay and bisexual men can get monkeypox.
Fact: To date, monkeypox has disproportionately affected the LGBTQ+ community, but it is crucial to understand that ANYONE who does not have immunity against the virus can get monkeypox.
This myth is stigmatizing the LGBTQ+ community, as it implies that people who are not a part of it do not have to care about what’s going on with this outbreak, which is dangerous misinformation.
The most important thing you can know about monkeypox right now is that it can affect anyone, regardless of your sexual orientation or partners. Everyone should be aware of the risks and educate themselves on how they can best protect themselves, their families, and their partners against monkeypox.
Myth #8: The monkeypox vaccine is new.
Fact: Neither vaccine being used to prevent the spread of monkeypox right now is new.
ACAM2000, which was created to protect people at high risk of contracting smallpox, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) 15 years ago — in 2007. ACAM2000 replaced Dryvax in 2008, which was a vaccine used in the global eradication of smallpox.
And Jynneos, also known as imvanex/imvamune, was approved for the prevention of both smallpox and monkeypox three years ago — in 2019.
Myth #9: Anyone can get a monkeypox vaccine.
Fact: The Jynneos vaccine is being distributed to local public health authorities for community vaccination, but because supplies are limited, many municipalities are only making vaccines available to people who meet certain eligibility criteria.
Fact: Monkeypox is not related to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. They are both viruses. But SARS-CoV-2, a respiratory pathogen, is a member of the coronavirus family, which was named for its crown-like appearance under a microscope. Monkeypox and smallpox, meanwhile, are members of the Orthopoxvirus genus, which is a completely separate virus group.
Amy Spallone, M.D., is assistant professor of Infectious Diseases, Infection Control and Employee Health at MD Anderson.