Tuesday briefing: Everything you need to know about monkeypox

Show caption ‘It shouldn’t have the same catastrophic impact as the last disease to pop up in the headlines.’ Photograph: Dado Ruvić/Reuters First Edition Tuesday briefing: Everything you need to know about monkeypox In today’s newsletter: rising cases of an infectious disease will naturally cause alarm – but Guardian science editor Ian Sample tells Nimo Omer why we shouldn’t be too concerned Sign up here for our new daily newsletter, First Edition Nimo Omer Tue 24 May 2022 06.56 BST Share on Facebook

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Good morning. As the seemingly never-ending fiasco of Partygate rumbles on (new pictures, that were obtained by ITV News, appear to show the prime minister drinking with colleagues during the coronavirus lockdown in November 2020) another virus has begun worrying scientists.

Understandably, after two years of a pandemic, any mention of a new viral outbreak is going to be quite alarming. So it’s no surprise that when countries across Europe and North America started detecting cases of monkeypox, a disease usually found in central and western Africa, there was a bit of a panic.

So far, over 100 confirmed cases have been identified in 16 countries. It feels eerily similar to reports of a mystery disease found in Wuhan in 2019 – but is it? I spoke to the Guardian’s science editor, Ian Sample, about how concerned we should really be. First though, the headlines:

Five big stories

Politics | Boris Johnson is facing fresh claims of lying to MPs after photos emerged of him toasting a senior aide at a Downing Street leaving drinks event during a national Covid lockdown. Iran | Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has said a Foreign Office official witnessed her signing a letter of false confession under duress. Transport | London Underground staff will strike for 24 hours on Monday 6 June in response to Transport for London’s plans to cut 600 jobs. Ukraine | A Russian soldier has been sentenced to life in prison for killing a civilian, in the first verdict of a war crimes trial relating to the conflict. . Politics | A damning parliamentary report into the UK’s “chaotic” and “disastrous” exit from Afghanistan has called on senior civil servant Sir Philip Barton to consider his position and criticised Dominic Raab for being on holiday as Kabul fell.

In depth: What we know so far about rising cases

An image, issued by the CDC, taken during an investigation into an outbreak of monkeypox, which took place in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1996 to 1997. Photograph: CDC/BRIAN W.J. MAHY/Reuters

57 cases of monkeypox have been detected in the UK, with Scotland announcing its first case yesterday, and that number will continue to grow. But before you start to worry about lockdowns and another deadly pandemic, below we have outlined some fairly reassuring facts about this newly-famous virus.


What even is monkeypox?

Monkeypox has been around for a while. It’s a zoonotic virus (meaning it travels from animals to humans) and was first discovered in 1958 in colonies of monkeys. The first human case was recorded about 12 years later in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and for the last few decades the virus has generally stayed around central and west Africa, particularly in close proximity to tropical rainforests. Melissa Davey, Guardian Australia’s medical editor, has written a great explainer on the various reasons that cases of the virus are suddenly rising now.

The virus has two genetic strains: the central African strain and the west African strain. The former is known to spread more easily and cause more severe symptoms whereas, generally speaking, the latter is milder – and it is that west African strain that is being found at the moment. “As far as I’m aware, no one outside Africa has died of monkeypox,” our science editor Ian Sample tells me. “Most people just shrug it off after a few weeks.” Ian’s right, according to the World Health Organisation there have been no fatalities associated with this outbreak.

Monkeypox has also been detected in the UK before, Ian says. “These cases caused doctors to scratch their heads in sexual health clinics. You had people turning up with ulcers and spots on their face and genitals, but they weren’t testing positive for the usual suspects like herpes.” But usually such patients have been quickly linked to somebody travelling to a country with high levels of monkeypox and bringing it back with them. Now – for the first time – the virus is being detected in people that have not travelled to western or central Africa. Scientists are left trying to figure out how these people were infected.


How does it spread?

Monkeypox is spread when there is close contact with an infected person or animal. “This virus isn’t airborne [like coronavirus],” Ian explains, “it gets into someone’s body through broken skin. Even if you can’t see those breakages the virus can get through.” This is perhaps why a lot of cases are found to have been sexually transmitted, but that’s not the only way it can happen. It is possible to catch it the way you would any other virus, like the flu, through your nose or mouth, if someone infected sneezed into your face, or coughed right at you, “but they’d have to be pretty close,” Ian adds. “And there’s also a possibility of getting it if you’re changing the bedding of a patient who’s had a lot of these ulcers which can have quite high concentrations of the virus in them.” But crucially there does have to be a high level of close contact.


How dangerous is it?

There’s no need to sound the alarm just yet. Monkeypox is not like Covid-19 – it’s nowhere near as transmissible, meaning that large outbreaks are very unlikely, and as it’s the milder strain of monkeypox, there’s not much to worry about in terms of death rates or severe disease either. “Monkeypox is a DNA virus, it doesn’t evolve anywhere near as fast as the RNA viruses, which is what coronavirus is,” Ian says. And because the virus is not new, doctors do have solutions on hand to mitigate damage: “the smallpox vaccine can give you about 85% protection against monkeypox. And there are also a couple of antivirals that could help.”

That doesn’t mean monitoring isn’t needed. It’s still important we know who has got it and try to prevent the spread, as it can be dangerous for children, pregnant people and those with weakened immune systems – hence why those testing positive are asked to isolate for three weeks. And the symptoms can be debilitating: headaches, nausea, fever, swelling lymph nodes, exhaustion and lesions that turn into ulcers on the face, hands and feet.


The fallout

But it’s not just those who have caught the disease that are suffering as a result of the outbreak. The UN has condemned what it has described as racist and homophobic reporting of monkeypox. A significant proportion of these cases have been detected in men who have sex with men, but scientists are clear that this does not mean that only LGBT+ people can catch the disease. Anyone who has close contact with someone who is infected is likely to get infected themselves. But the sinister undertone of some reporting is reminiscent of other viral infections that have been used to further stigmatise gay men in the past. “​​We saw this in the 1980s with HIV,” says Ian. “At times it was referred to as a ‘gay disease’ and that is obviously nonsense – anyone can get HIV just like anyone can get monkeypox.”

Unlike Covid-19, monkeypox has been around for decades and been thoroughly studied. We know it doesn’t spread easily, it’s outside its natural home in the tropical rainforests, and it’s almost impossible to not know you have it once symptoms begin, making contact tracing and isolation easier. Cases will inevitably increase but unless something changes, it shouldn’t have the same catastrophic impact as the last disease to dominate the headlines.

What else we’ve been reading

Penn Badgley fans unite! Hollie Richardson interviewed a Covid-ridden Badgley about his career, his new podcast and how he deals with low self-esteem. Nimo

I enjoyed Arifa Akbar’s interview with Amanda Abbington , on life after her divorce from Martin Freeman, and her new partner Jonathan Goodwin’s paralysis. “We try to say ‘Yes’ to a lot of things,” she says. “Life’s too short.”

Hannah J Davies, deputy editor, newsletters

Rebekah Pierre incisively examines the landmark review of children’s social care in England as someone who has been through and worked in the system. Nimo

I’ve absolutely raced through Sirin Kale and Pandora Sykes’s ten-part BBC podcast Unreal: A Critical History of Reality TV . Covering everything from the dawn of talent shows like The X Factor to the rise of scripted reality, it is brilliantly researched and Sirin and Pandora aren’t afraid to ask difficult questions. For more podcast recommendations sign up to Hear Here, our weekly podcast newsletter. Hannah

The 2010s have made it feel like we will never live in a world without populism. But Guardian columnist Gaby Hinsliff thinks there’s hope yet after the defeat of Australia’s “shameless culture warrior [Prime Minister] Scott Morrison” in the recent elections. Nimo


Football | Erik ten Hag, the new manager of Manchester United, has said that he is confident he can restore the club’s good fortune and end the dominance of rivals Manchester City and Liverpool.

Football | Barney Ronay has written beautifully about Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, the newly crowned Premier League champions set to define the era.

Tennis | Naomi Osaka has said that she might skip Wimbledon after the tournament was stripped of ranking points. “I’m not sure why, but If I play Wimbledon without points, it’s more like an exhibition,” Osaka said, “I just can’t go at it 100%.”

The front pages

Guardian front page, 24 May 2022.

The Guardian leads today with “Fresh danger for Johnson over No 10 drinks pictures” while the Mirror asks “How did he get away with THIS?”. The Telegraph says “Pressure on Met over pictures of PM raising a toast in No10” while the Times has “Partying PM ‘misled Commons’”. “Lockdown party photos hit PM” is the i’s take; the Metro is incredulous with “Lockdown In One, PM – how did Boris not get fined for this booze-up?”. But, “Nothing to see here!” insists the Express – “Yard says Boris broke no rules”. The splash in the Financial Times is “Big power generators in Sunak’s sights for widened windfall tax”. The Mail has “Rail strike could cause blackouts” while the Sun’s top story – “Some PCs are on the pitch” – is about off-duty police joining “raucous celebrations after Bournemouth’s win on May 3”.

Today in Focus

Photograph: LukaTDB/Getty Images

Toothaches and waiting lists: where did the NHS dentists go?

Millions of people in the UK are struggling to gain access to affordable dental care. Denis Campbell explores the crisis in NHS dentistry.

Cartoon of the day | Ben Jennings

Ben Jennings on Partygate and the cost of living crisis. Illustration: Ben Jennings/The Guardian

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

Anneka Rice: ‘There will always be room for a challenge.’ Photograph: Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy

After more than 25 years away, Challenge Anneka will return to British screens, with Channel 5 bringing back the family favourite. The show, which saw Anneka Rice dash to complete complex charitable feats in limited time – such as moving a hospital from Dunfermline to Romania (brick by brick) – enjoyed huge audiences of up to 12 million when it aired on the BBC from 1989-95. “There will always be a room for challenge on television, because it’s about kindness, it’s about community, it’s about the power of the collective,” Rice said. “As humans we are totally hardwired to be altruistic.”

This was never so true as for the project they undertook in Siret, Romania, in 1990 – totally renovating an orphanage that was home to 600 children, and lacked basic sanitation and working electricity. It was a challenge they returned to a number of times over the years, providing ongoing support, and Rice said that some of the children helped then are now providing shelter for Ukrainian refugees today: “That absolutely floored me because it was like one humanitarian crisis 30 years ago, rolling into another one.”

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s crosswords to keep you entertained throughout the day – with plenty more on the Guardian’s Puzzles app for iOS and Android. Until tomorrow.