Assessing Monkeypox threat in the greater Walla Walla community

Sebastian Squire, News Reporter

On Aug. 21, the Whitman Office of Communications sent out a Whitman Today email saying that Walla Walla County had detected its first probable case of monkeypox (MPV). 

MPV—a member of the same virus family as smallpox—can cause painful skin lesions resembling blisters or pimples. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website, these rashes typically last two to four weeks and are often accompanied by other symptoms including fever, chills, fatigue and body aches.

According to the CDC, MPV is spread through “close, personal, often skin-to-skin contact” with rashes, bodily fluids, clothing or bedding used by someone with MPV. It is rare for MPV to spread through brief contact with surfaces touched by an infected person.

Smallpox vaccines have been proven to boost immunity to MPV. The JYNNEOS vaccine was originally developed to combat smallpox, but has previously been used to protect against MPV. The federal government is currently in charge of distributing vaccines to local, state and municipal health departments. 

In an email to The Wire, Jess Nelson, a public information officer for the Washington Department of Health, emphasized the need for continual vaccinations.

The smallpox vaccine does not provide lifelong immunity; essentially, its effectiveness wears off,” Nelson said. “At present, the CDC is recommending that even if an individual received a smallpox vaccine previously, that they receive the full series of the JYNNEOS vaccine.

Another vaccine, ACAM2000, has also been developed to treat MPV. However, Nelson is concerned about potential side effects. 

The CDC is advising against the use of ACAM2000, as some individuals may have more severe side effects, so Washington is joining other states in agreeing not to use it for the public’s safety,” Nelson said. In order to get the next allocation of JYNNEOS vaccine, states have to prove they’ve utilized 85 percent of available doses, and we’re working to reach that threshold. We are working to ensure all available vaccines are used and distributed in an equitable way.

Currently, vaccine supply is limited and the CDC does not recommend that the general public get vaccinated. However, people who have been in close contact or have had an intimate partner test positive for MPV within the last two weeks are eligible for vaccination. Men who have had intimate relations with multiple other men within the last two weeks are also eligible for the vaccine, according to the CDC. More information regarding vaccine eligibility is available at the CDC’s website.

Advocates have pointed to a slow vaccine rollout as proof of anti-LGBTQIA+ bias from the federal government, with parallels being drawn between the federal government’s alleged mishandling of MPV and its stigmatization of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.

There has been misinformation claiming only men who have sexual relations with men are at risk of contracting MPV; however, anyone is able to get MPV. 

The Walla Walla County Department of Community Health is the local health authority for Walla Walla County. Dr. Daniel Kaminsky, a spokesperson from the department, provided clarity on the contagiousness of MPV.

The first thing I would like to point out is that although the LGBTQ+ community has been disproportionately impacted by this disease, MPV is a human disease that does not discriminate based on a certain demographic,” Kaminsky said. “Anyone can get MPV.

Whitman College has been closely monitoring the development and spread of MPV at the local and national levels. Welty Student Health Center Director Claudia Ness commented on how to best prevent its spread on campus.

[The best way for students to mitigate risk of MPV is] by avoiding skin-to-skin contact with individuals with skin lesions,” Ness said. 

Ness emphasized the current protocols Whitman is employing, stressing the importance of campus-wide collaboration.

“If a student has a questionable or probable MPV diagnosis, the student will be referred to a community clinic for testing,” Ness said. “At this point in time, the college is working with the Walla Walla County Health Department for vaccination of high-risk individuals, people with diagnosed MPV and exposure (contacts).”

Dr. Kaminsky encouraged all members of the community to critically assess their own individual health.

“Life has inherent risk,” Kaminsky said. “Educate yourself, employ reasonable prevention measures and move forward.”