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Monkeypox: Why LA is watching out for this rare but potentially serious illness

Rong-Gong Lin II and Luke Money, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES — An increase in the number of cases of monkeypox, a rare but potentially serious viral illness, in Europe and a single case in Massachusetts is attracting increased attention from health officials.

While monkeypox is in the same family of viruses as smallpox, it has been nowhere nearly as contagious as its better-known cousin, nor is it anywhere nearly as contagious as the virus that causes COVID-19.

Monkeypox is garnering increased attention because outbreaks and cases are showing up in areas where they don’t usually occur, raising questions about whether there’s an increased chance for human-to-human transmission.

There are no known cases of monkeypox in Los Angeles County, Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said. “We do want to reassure people, it’s really, really rare,” Ferrer said.

But the county is monitoring for monkeypox cases and will be issuing guidance to health care providers so they can report suspected monkeypox cases to the county. People should contact their health care providers if they notice an unusual rash or skin lesions that “generally start in one area, but pretty quickly spread over the body,” Ferrer said.

Monkeypox causes symptoms similar to smallpox, but they are generally milder. The illness begins with fever, aches, swollen lymph nodes, chills and exhaustion, and then later develops into a rash, usually starting on the face and then spreading to other parts of the bodies, turning into pus-filled sores before they fall off.


The illness can last two to four weeks. According to the World Health Organization, historically, between 0% and 11% of those with monkeypox infections have died from the disease, with the fatality rate higher among younger children.

The last major monkeypox outbreak in the U.S. occurred in 2003, leading to 71 confirmed or suspected cases — mostly in Wisconsin, Indiana and Illinois. The confirmed cases had contact with pet prairie dogs obtained from an animal distributor in suburban Chicago that had been housed near Gambian giant rats and dormice that came from Ghana.

No one died in this U.S. outbreak. Only two patients — both children — had serious illness; both recovered.

The 2003 outbreak was the first time monkeypox had been detected in the U.S.


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