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Monkeypox is NOT like herpes or chickenpox – what that means for you

Alexandra Ciufudean August 5, 2022
Woman looking her face by mini mirror before applying an antiviral cream or ointment to treat Herpes labialis on her lower lip.

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A graph falsely attributed to the BBC claiming Monkeypox is a “form of herpes” that can be spread via airborne transmission is making the rounds on social media.

The same graph falsely claims the virus travels in the air up to 15ft (4.5m) and can last for two to four months.

According to experts contacted by the Associated Press, these claims are false and the now-viral graph was never shared by the BBC.

As the US declares a state of emergency over the ongoing monkeypox outbreak, here’s what you need to know about the difference between monkeypox, herpes, chickenpox and orthopoxvirus.

Photo by Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Monkeypox is NOT ‘a form of herpes’: Fake BBC graph debunked

On Thursday (August 4, 2022), the Biden administration declared a state of emergency as monkeypox cases continue to surge across the country. On the same day, the CDC registered 7,102 confirmed cases of the disease since the start of the outbreak in May.

The declaration will allow states to free up funding to accelerate their disease-limiting response.

As the news reaches a wider public still scarred by the ravages of the (ongoing) covid-19 pandemic, misinformation threatens to run rampant on social media. This week the Associated Press debunked a graph, purporting to be from the BBC, which shared false and alarming information.

The broadcaster confirmed to AP it was not responsible for the graph and a CDC spokesperson corrected the false information within it. The claims “monkeypox is a form of herpes” and the virus is spread through the air up to 15ft, lasting for two to four months and sometimes resulting in paralysis are all false, experts told AP.

Professor of global health at George Washington University Christopher Mores explained monkeypox and herpes are two completely distinct viruses. Sometimes the lesions from monkeypox can resemble herpes blisters and appear in similar places such as genital regions, but the two viruses belong to different families with distinct symptoms.

CDC spokesperson Katie Fowlie added the monkeypox virus was “not known to linger in the air and is not transmitted during short periods of shared airspace,” debunking the false claim it can spread up to 15ft.

So far in the current outbreak, people with monkeypox generally report having had prolonged close contact with an infected person. According to the latest CDC guidelines, the virus spreads through contact with the bodily fluids or sores on someone infected, or by sharing the same clothes, towels, bedding and other objects that are used directly on the skin.

Fowlie added monkeypox could also spread “through respiratory secretions when people have close, face-to-face contact.” This includes coughing, sneezing and accidentally spitting while talking.

How monkeypox differs from herpes, chickenpox and shingles

Monkeypox and herpes belong to two different virus families.

Herpes is part of herpesviridiae, which includes five viruses that are widespread in humans – the two herpes simplex viruses responsible for oral and genital herpes (HSV-1 and HSV-2), the varicella zoster virus which causes chickenpox and shingles (HHV-3), the Epstein-Barr virus implicated in mononucleosis (EBV, or HHV-4) and human cytomegalovirus, which is usually threatening for people with immune deficiencies (HHV-5).

In the US, more than 90 per cent of adults have been infected with at least one type of herpes virus during their lifetime and a latent form of the virus remains in almost everyone post-infection. In people with a healthy immune system, infection with any of the herpesviridiae viruses is usually inconvenient, but not life-threatening.

Antiviral cream can relieve the burning, itching, or tingling.

Monkeypox, on the other hand, is not related to herpes but instead belongs to the orthopoxvirus family, also known as “true pox viruses.” These include the variola or smallpox virus, which was declared eradicated in 1980 after a worldwide vaccination effort. For a long time – possibly thousands of years – smallpox ravaged populations, with a death rate of up to 30 per cent or even higher for infants.

Monkeypox, however, has a significantly lower death rate, between 3.6 and 10.6 per cent depending on which version of the virus a patient is infected with. Most deaths occurred in infants and people with HIV and were closely tied to levels of poverty and access to health care.

Last weekend, the first deaths from monkeypox were recorded outside of endemic countries in central and west Africa. Spain reported two cases of fatality, while India and Brazil had one each. According to CNN Brasil, the Brazilian patient had been suffering from lymphoma and was immunocompromised.

Monkeypox vs herpes virus explained

As monkeypox and herpes are different viruses, it’s important to understand the main distinctions to avoid the spread of misinformation.

At first glance, monkeypox lesions can look like a number of things, including herpes, acne or even syphilis, but there are some important distinctions. According to Dr Carrie Kovarik, a professor of dermatology at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, the monkeypox rashes she has seen are usually not scattered all over the body but appear as one main cluster with fewer lesions in other parts of the body.

3D generated image of DNA spiral being attacked by monkeypox Virus.

While some patients can get these main clusters in their genital area just like genital herpes, she explained monkeypox bumps are usually larger and have a characteristic “central indent” at the top of the blister, which sets them apart.

However, as monkeypox is transmitted through skin to skin contact, the lesions can appear just about anywhere on the body, similar to herpes. If you’re worried about a new rash, the best way to know which one you’ve got (if any of them) is to consult your doctor and get a test, Kovarik added.

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Alexandra is Head of Entertainment at The Focus, managing a growing team of outstanding graduate and experienced writers. She has worked previously as an editor, writer and content specialist across web, video and social platforms and has a bachelor's in English Linguistics and a master's in Comparative Literature.