Monkeypox 101: what you need to know

Word monkeypox in a speech bubble

Monkeypox was recently declared a public health emergency of international concern by the World Health Organization (WHO). But what does monkeypox look like and what’s the risk?

Dr. Andrea Willis, chief medical officer for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee

WellTuned spoke with Dr. Andrea Willis, chief medical officer at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, to get the latest details.

What is monkeypox?

Dr. Willis: Monkeypox is a virus that’s part of the same family that causes smallpox. It causes an infection that can last a few weeks. It’s rarely fatal but some cases can be severe. Monkeypox is much less transmissible than smallpox or fast-spreading respiratory diseases like COVID-19.

How is it transmitted?

Dr. Willis: Monkeypox is generally spread through close contact, usually by:

  • direct contact with the rash, scabs or body fluids from someone with monkeypox
  • touching contaminated objects or surfaces
  • contact with infectious respiratory secretions

It’s also zoonotic, which means it can spread between people and animals. The CDC does not believe monkeypox poses a high risk to pets at this time.

What are the symptoms?

Dr. Willis: Symptoms of monkeypox mirror smallpox, including a fever and rash. This rash can look like pimples or blisters. And it can appear on the face, inside the mouth, and on other parts of the body, like the hands, feet, chest, genitals or anus. The rash often goes through different stages before healing completely.

Some people only experience a small rash. Others can get a rash first, followed by other symptoms, such as:

  • headache
  • muscle aches
  • swollen lymph nodes
  • exhaustion
  • chills

What should I do if I’m experiencing symptoms? Are there treatments?

Dr. Willis: Avoid contact with other people or animals. And contact your primary health care provider right away. There are no treatments specifically for monkeypox virus infections. But your provider can recommend how to best manage these symptoms.

Also, monkeypox and smallpox viruses have similar genetics. This means antiviral drugs and vaccines that protect against smallpox may be used to prevent and treat monkeypox virus infections.

Are there confirmed cases in the U.S. or Tennessee? What’s the risk?

Dr. Willis: Anyone can get monkeypox. And anyone who comes into close contact with someone carrying the disease is at risk of infection. There are close to a dozen confirmed cases in Tennessee and thousands in the U.S. currently. The CDC says the risk of contracting monkeypox in the U.S. is low right now.

What’s the best protection?

Dr. Willis: The best way to protect yourself is with heightened hygiene. You should also avoiding contact with anyone who has a rash that looks like monkeypox. The CDC shares these 5 preventive measures:

  1. Wash your hands often with soap and water or use alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  2. Don’t touch the rash or scabs of a person with monkeypox.
  3. Don’t kiss, hug, cuddle or have sex with someone with monkeypox.
  4. Don’t share eating utensils or cups with a person with monkeypox.
  5. Don’t handle or touch the bedding, towels, or clothing of a person with monkeypox.

Is there a vaccine?

Dr. Willis: There are two vaccines being used in the U.S. to help prevent the spread of monkeypox. The immediate strategy focuses on getting vaccines to adults and communities who are high-risk, to stop the spread of the disease. While the WHO advises that men having sex with men is the most high-risk category for transmission, it’s important we don’t forget that anyone can get monkeypox.

Where can people go to stay updated?

Dr. Willis: You can go directly to these organization’s websites for the most up-to-date information:




Ali Whittier, CHES®

Ali joined the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee corporate communications team in 2014 and is a Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES®) through the National Commission for Health Education Credentialing (NCHEC). A native of Iowa, she has more than a decade of experience in health promotion and community engagement, as well as health care communications. When she’s not at BlueCross, she and her husband Spencer are racing their bikes, spending time outdoors or cooking healthy food and treats in their kitchen.

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