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Dr. Amira Roess shares some background on the disease, how globalization contributes to its spread, and the important role of public health in its containment and prevention.
Monkeypox may seem like it came out of nowhere, but it has been around for more than 70 years. Globalization — how technology and transportation have made people, countries, and companies around the world more connected — has increased the likelihood that any disease may spread around the world faster. Epidemiologist and Professor at George Mason University Dr. Amira Roess shares some background on monkeypox, how globalization contributes to its spread, and the important role of public health in its containment and prevention.
Roess specializes in infectious diseases like COVID-19 and monkeypox, especially reducing the transmission of diseases that originate through animal-human contact. Roess investigated and responded to monkeypox infections in 2008 while serving as an Epidemic Intelligence Service officer at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
Where did monkeypox come from?
We have more than 70 years of evidence that monkeypox is a naturally occurring virus, first recognized in the late 1950s. It circulates among rodents and when humans handle infected rodents or other infected animals or objects humans are then infected. The reality is that there are many viruses circulating among wildlife that periodically spillover into human populations. We cannot predict what triggers these events, but we do know that our growing encroachment on wildlife coupled with the increase in urbanization and globalization has meant that spillover events are more widely felt.
Monkeypox outbreaks have historically occurred in central and west African countries, but is still relatively rare compared to other viruses.
How has urbanization and globalization increased the spread of diseases?
The first monkeypox virus outbreaks were localized in remote areas in Central Africa and did not lead to cases outside of the outbreak area. Subsequent outbreaks spread from remote areas to larger cities but rarely outside of the affected country. As urbanization increased, the outbreaks became larger because more individuals came into close contact with infected individuals but the outbreaks still rarely were felt outside of the affected country.
With the increase in both urbanization and globalization, we will feel outbreaks from a zoonotic, or animal, origin more acutely throughout the world. It's not just monkeypox or Ebola, but also mosquito-borne viruses like dengue, that have spread further than ever because of our introduction and reintroduction of the mosquito that carries it throughout the world. There are many examples of these viruses that live in nature and that spillover in part due to human behavior and then are transmitted directly because of our behaviors. The expectation among a lot of us is that with globalization there would be global cooperation in public health and surveillance.
How can public health departments and vaccines help with this outbreak?
In many countries the benefits of public works and public health infrastructure are felt far and wide. In many places people know the impact of infectious diseases. For example, they know someone who had polio and lives with physical limitations from it. They know people who have lost infants due to tetanus or measles. What these diseases have in common is that they are preventable with vaccines. As we have gotten better at providing vaccines and reducing mortality from infectious diseases, we also seem to forget that these pathogens and many more are lurking in the background. They are real. Public health departments can help the public understand the potential threat from monkeypox and any disease and promote the importance of vaccines.
In theory, the smallpox vaccine can protect individuals against monkeypox. In practice, a very limited number of individuals have received a smallpox vaccine because people stopped receiving the vaccine in the early 1970s once the disease was eradicated. So more and more of our population is susceptible to Orthopoxviruses such as monkeypox.
See Dr. Roess’s other tip sheets for information about monkeypox:
What to Know About Monkeypox and the Potential for an Outbreak in the U.S.
Dr. Amira Roess specializes in infectious diseases, especially reducing the transmission of diseases that spread between animals and humans, including coronaviruses like MERS-CoV and SAR-CoV-2, the latter of which causes COVID-19. She worked on monkeypox and other viruses when she served as an Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer at the CDC’s Poxvirus and Rabies Branch.
She is a professor of Global Health and Epidemiology at George Mason University's College of Health and Human Services, Department of Global and Community Health. Prior to joining academia, Dr. Roess served as the Science Director for the Pew Commission on Industrial Food Animal Production at Johns Hopkins, and was an Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) officer at the CDC. She has served as consultant for the United States Agency for International Development, the World Bank, and Westat Inc.
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George Mason University, Virginia’s largest public research university, enrolls 39,000 students from 130 countries and all 50 states. Located near Washington, D.C., Mason has grown rapidly over the last half-century and is recognized for its innovation and entrepreneurship, remarkable diversity, and commitment to accessibility. In 2022, Mason celebrates 50 years as an independent institution. Learn more at http://www.gmu.edu.
About the College of Health and Human Services
The College of Health and Human Services prepares students to become leaders and to shape the public's health through academic excellence, research of consequence, community outreach, and interprofessional clinical practice. The College enrolls more than 1,900 undergraduate and 1,300 graduate students in its nationally-recognized offerings, including 6 undergraduate degrees, 13 graduate degrees, and 6 certificate programs. The college is transitioning to a college of public health in the near future. For more information, visit https://chhs.gmu.edu/.