As monkeypox cases increase across the country, so do various misconceptions about how the disease spreads, who it infects and how deadly it is.
Myths about infectious diseases can have a major impact on public health efforts. In the past, such misunderstandings have caused people to underestimate their risk, avoid taking precautions that help prevent transmission, and choose not to get vaccinated.
One of the worst things that people can do during a public health emergency is fuel myths that cause fear and panic, according to Dr. Jorge Salinas, a hospital epidemiologist at Stanford University. Clear and accurate communication can help people understand their personal risk and feel empowered to take protective steps.
“We need to stay with the science,” Salinas said.
Here, HuffPost sets the record straight and corrects some of the monkeypox misinformation that has circulated recently.
Myth: Monkeypox Only Spreads Through Sex
Though monkeypox is not considered a sexually transmitted infection, it primarily spreads through close, intimate contact. But the virus doesn’t only spread through sex.
Monkeypox transmission requires prolonged, often skin-to-skin contact — which you can have with or without sex. Hugging and cuddling, or even touching bedding and other items that were used by someone with monkeypox, can put you at risk.
“Is sex required, obligatory, mandatory to acquire monkeypox? The answer is no,” Salinas said.
Myth: Monkeypox Is Just Like COVID-19
While COVID-19 can easily be contracted through aerosols in the air, getting monkeypox is more difficult, said Dr. Katherine Baumgarten, the medical director of infection control and prevention at Ochsner Health. Monkeypox requires that prolonged, close contact with an infected person’s skin lesions, large respiratory droplets or contaminated objects.
“This is not COVID-19. This is not a highly infectious, highly transmissible respiratory virus,” Salinas added.
Salinas doesn’t think monkeypox is capable of causing the same havoc that COVID-19 did. Pandemic viruses tend to be highly transmissible respiratory viruses that can spread in the pre-symptomatic phase, which makes them hard to control.
That said, monkeypox is still a public health problem, and you should take precautions.
“I’m not saying monkeypox is easy to control, but it is not as difficult — it’s not in the same ballpark — as respiratory viruses,” Salinas said.
Myth: Monkeypox Only Affects A Certain Population
Monkeypox is primarily spreading among men who have sex with men, along with nonbinary individuals and transgender women who have sex with men. The risk is greatest among people with multiple sexual partners, but anyone who is intimately exposed to monkeypox can contract it.
The virus is not selective about who it infects, Baumgarten said. Instead, it really just has to do with the mode of transmission.
Monkeypox seems to proliferate within this particular social network because it has more opportunities to spread through close contact. But this doesn’t mean that the virus can’t get into other circles. In fact, it likely already did but then burned out before it had the chance to spread further.
“This virus can be transmitted from person to person through close skin-to-skin contact, no matter what activity or what gender the person is,” Salinas said.
Myth: Monkeypox Is A New Illness We’re Fighting
Though monkeypox doesn’t typically break out of endemic regions like these, it’s not unheard of. The U.S. has seen sporadic cases in the past when people traveled to such areas or were exposed to imported animals that were infected.
“It has not been largely transmissible as it has been more recently. But it has been around for a long time and just has not had the opportunity to spread throughout populations like it is now,” Baumgarten said.
Myth: The Low Fatality Rate Means Monkeypox Needn’t Be Taken Seriously
Very few people die from monkeypox in general, according to Salinas, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s case data indicates that no monkeypox deaths have been confirmed in the current U.S. outbreak.
“The strain that’s circulating right now is not very deadly. And in the past, it only had been associated with a less than 1% mortality,” Baumgarten said.
The vast majority of people who contract monkeypox do not need to be hospitalized and can manage their symptoms — which commonly include fever, body aches and painful skin lesions — from home, Salinas said.
But even though the disease isn’t usually life-threatening, it can still be dangerous. In certain cases, the lesions can cause vision problems or issues with urinating and defecating.
“It’s clinically mild because people don’t die or need to be hospitalized. But at the same time, it can be a serious problem,” Salinas said.