The monkeypox outbreak is continuing to grow in several countries and a mutation of the virus could lead to lockdowns, even in South Africa. 

There were 257 confirmed cases of monkeypox globally by the end of May 2022, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). The outbreak started in the United Kingdom on May 6, 2022 and has since spread to 29 countries. 

Professor Helen Rees, the founder and executive director of the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute (Wits RHI), says the monkeypox virus would need to change its behaviour (mutate) to become a virus that causes an outright pandemic. Rees said that if the virus does not mutate there will be “no lockdown” necessary in South Africa or closure of Wits.  

Professor Helen Rees, founder and executive director of Wits RHI stands before the Johannesburg skyline. Photo: Professor Helen Rees

The monkeypox virus is a DNA virus, which means it as a “more stable virus” than covid-19, explained Rees. RNA viruses like SARS-CoV-2 (covid-19) mutate at a much higher rate than DNA virus’s which causes them to be more unpredictable according to the National Centre for Biotechnology Information.  

In addition, Rees said how the two spread is different, covid-19 is an aerosol born disease whereas monkeypox is transmitted through close contact with an infected person or contact with infected surfaces.  

Monkeypox has flu like symptoms including fever, fatigue and headaches but the defining feature is the rash on the body particularly on the hands. For more information about monkeypox can be found here.

Foster Mohale, spokesperson for the national department of health, said “screening measures are in place at [South African] ports of entry… These are the same measures used for all other notifiable conditions like covid-19 because they have similar symptoms.”  

Mohale said: “You cannot 100% prevent the transmission of infectious diseases… all you can do it to manage and control it to minimize the spread.” Mohale said there is valid concern around an outbreak because of the lessons learnt from the covid-19 pandemic, and “no one is safe until we are all safe”.  

In terms of containing the virus, Rees says most people born before 1972 should have received the vaccine for smallpox, this vaccine gives 85% protection against monkeypox. The vaccination method is called “ring vaccination” which is different to the method used for covid-19. “The idea is to immunise all contacts around a case,” said Rees. This forms a ring around the case which will essentially stop the spread.  

Both covid-19 and monkeypox are zoonotic diseases which means they were transmitted from animals to humans. Climate change and deforestation has meant animals are now living in the cities rather than forests, this close contact will increase the likelihood of future transmission of zoonotic diseases Rees said.   

For now, South Africans have no reason to be concerned but viruses like this will keep popping up, threatening the ways we live and relate to one other for years to come. 

FEATURED IMAGE: Student conducting an experiment in a laboratory. Photo: File