What to know about monkeypox while traveling

Alexis Benveniste
Washington Post

As if the coronavirus pandemic hasn't given travelers enough to worry about, monkeypox was declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organization last month. The Biden administration also plans to declare the outbreak a public health emergency, The Washington Post reported Thursday.

With more than 26,000 monkeypox cases reported around the globe as of Aug. 4, travelers may be wondering how worried they should be about the virus. Here is what you need to know about monkeypox when traveling and how to protect yourself from the virus.

2022 Monkeypox outbreak global map with data as of Aug. 3, 2022.

More: US to declare health emergency over monkeypox outbreak

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Where is monkeypox spreading? 

Monkeypox has been found in almost every state in the United States and has been reported in 87 countries since the beginning of the year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Eighty of those countries have not historically reported the virus. In the United States, over 6,600 cases of monkeypox have been reported since May, though health experts say that is probably a significant undercount.

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How does monkeypox spread?

In the past, monkeypox typically spreads through exposure to infected animals, but the current outbreak is different. Now, it primarily spreads through direct human-to-human contact with infectious rashes, scabs or body fluids. It can also be transmitted from respiratory secretions during prolonged face-to-face contact.

While monkeypox is not considered a sexually transmitted disease, it does spread during sex because of close contact to rashes or lesions. Health experts say cases are overwhelmingly in men who have sex with men.

The virus is not limited to close contact with humans, though. It can also spread through soiled clothing, bedding, objects or other surfaces, said Lin Chen, associate professor at Harvard Medical School and director of travel medicine at Mount Auburn Hospital.

Specifically, the disease can be spread this way when infected individuals come in contact with the surfaces when secretions and scabs from the rash contain infected material, said Georges Benjamin, the executive director of the American Public Health Association.

You can also contract monkeypox from the bite or scratch of an animal that is infected, and pregnant mothers who are infected with monkeypox can pass the disease on to the fetus.

So how do you know when someone can spread it? "The individual is infectious from the onset of symptoms until the rash scabs over and is gone," Benjamin said. Infections typically last two to four weeks, according to the CDC.

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What does the CDC say about monkeypox and travel?

The CDC has issued a Level 2 warning for monkeypox, which means travelers should "practice enhanced precautions." This is a blanket warning and has not been applied to specific countries, unlike its warnings for covid levels.

If you could be infected by monkeypox, the CDC advises to delay travel by public transportation until you have been cleared by a health-care professional. This is in addition to avoiding contact with infected people and wild animals (dead or alive).

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Can I get monkeypox from a plane seat or a hotel bed?

While we know monkeypox can spread through infected surfaces, it is unlikely that you'll get the disease from a plane seat or a hotel bed because of the standard cleaning and disinfecting procedures, Chen said, but it is not impossible. This may become more of a concern if there are lapses in these practices.

"It is plausible that an infected passenger can shed virus that contaminates the surface," but Chen is not aware of any reports of such transmission. Ultimately, the highest risk situations occur when you share bedding, towels or clothing with people who are infected with monkeypox, and routine cleaning eliminates these risks.

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How can I protect myself?

You can protect yourself by talking to your health-care provider on whether you are a good candidate for the monkeypox vaccine, though access to the vaccine and tests for some remains a challenge.

In addition to getting the vaccine, you should "avoid contact with anyone that has a symptom or a rash consistent with monkeypox," Benjamin said. You can protect yourself from the virus by avoiding skin-to-skin contact with people who have a rash that might look like monkeypox. It is also important to avoid kissing, hugging and cuddling with or having sex with someone who has monkeypox.

Avoiding contact with items that someone with monkeypox has used is also helpful. This includes not sharing eating utensils, drinking glasses, bedding, towels or clothing with someone who has the virus.

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What can I do if I've been exposed?

If you've been exposed to monkeypox, talk to your health-care provider about potential treatment options. You can also check with your local health department for guidance. "There are post-exposure vaccines available as well as antiviral medications that might be helpful," Benjamin said.

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The Washington Post's Rachel Pannett, Fenit Nirappil, Meryl Kornfield, Timothy Bella and Lindsey Bever contributed to this report.