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Monkeypox cases confirmed in Lowcountry

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By Tony Kukulich

The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) has announced that cases of monkeypox (MPX) have been identified and confirmed around the state and in the Lowcountry region.

“DHEC has been planning and conducting response activities for the current MPX outbreak since late spring of 2022,” State Epidemiologist Dr. Linda Bell said on Aug. 3. “To date we have reported 23 confirmed cases of MPX in South Carolina. This is including 10 in the Midlands, seven in the Lowcountry and six cases in the Upstate.”

The number of confirmed MPX cases in the state as of Aug. 8 has increased to 39 according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The CDC describes monkeypox as a rare disease caused by infection with the monkeypox virus. It is part of the same family of viruses as variola virus, which causes smallpox. Monkeypox symptoms are similar to smallpox symptoms, but milder. The disease is rarely fatal.

There have been more than 8,900 confirmed MPX cases nationwide. California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, New York and Texas account for the majority of U.S. cases.

Speaking during a press conference, Bell provided information regarding the state’s response to the outbreak of the virus. The press conference came just a day before the Biden administration declared a public health emergency due to monkeypox.

“Ending the monkeypox outbreak is a critical priority for the Biden-Harris administration,” U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a press release on Thursday, Aug. 4. “We are taking our response to the next level by declaring a public health emergency. With today’s declaration we can further strengthen and accelerate our response.”

MPX symptoms begin with a fever and a flu-like illness followed by the development of a flat, red rash on the face. The rash progresses to puss-filled skin lesions. Scabs develop on the lesions in seven to 14 days.

The disease is spread through prolonged face-to-face or skin-to-skin contact, including sexual contact, with an infected person experiencing active lesions. Less typically, the disease can be spread by contact with contaminated items like clothing or linens.

“It is close, intimate contact that is driving the outbreak currently,” Bell explained. “Contact with things in the environment such as door knobs or handrails are not a risk at this time. It is unlikely that someone can get MPX through routine community activities like going to grocery stores or restaurants, or something like being in an elevator with someone. The risk to the general public is low, and the risk of widespread disease is low because the virus is not easily spread.”

While anyone can contract MPX, most cases in the U.S. and in the state have occurred within social and sexual networks of men who have sex with men, according to Bell. MPX can be spread during sexual contact, but it is not a sexually transmitted disease. The use of a condom is unlikely to provide protection against the transmission of the virus from an infected person to an uninfected person.

Avoiding intimate contact with an infected person is the best way to prevent the spread of MPX. Additionally, DHEC advises that anyone who may have come into contact with a person infected with MPX wear a face mask. Frequent hand washing, particularly after contact with an infected person or a person suspected to be infected, is also recommended.

“Before engaging in sexual activity or intimate contact, people should ask their partner if they’ve been feeling well, or if they’ve developed a new rash,” Bell advised.

The state has secured 1,500 doses of an MPX vaccine approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and vaccination efforts began late last month. The vaccine utilizes a two-dose regimen. To date, outreach has focused on the communities most impacted by the virus. DHEC expects to receive an additional 5,200 doses in the next phase of the vaccine roll-out. Appointments for vaccinations are being accepted at 14 clinics across the state for those who are eligible.

“There is a very limited national supply of the generic vaccine, so we are prioritizing high-risk groups in each public health region and offering the vaccine for as long as supplies last,” Bell said.

To be eligible for the vaccine, an individual must be at least 18 years old and identify as gay or bisexual man, or as a gender-fluid, transgender or gender non-conforming individual who has sex with men and has had multiple male sexual contacts within the previous two weeks.

“We will continue to monitor the spread of MPX and make any needed adjustments in the vaccination process as more vaccines become available,” Bell said. “We encourage South Carolina residents to seek medical care if they develop an unusual rash, or if they believe they were exposed to someone who might have had an MPX infection. Though the risk to the general population remains low, we encourage the public to inform themselves about MPX through reliable sources including the DHEC website, which is scdhec.gov/MPX.”

To contact DHEC for a monkeypox vaccination, call 855-472-3432.

Tony Kukulich is a recent transplant to the Lowcountry. A native of Wilmington, Del., he comes to The Island News from the San Francisco Bay Area where he spent seven years as a reporter and photographer for several publications. He can be reached at tony.theislandnews@gmail.com.

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