NEW BEDFORD — At least one confirmed monkeypox case and a “handful” of presumptive cases have been diagnosed in New Bedford this summer, community health officials say, but none have required hospitalization. Health organizations are planning outreach that could help reduce the spread. 

The first confirmed case was diagnosed on June 24 with a positive test result, according to Cheryl Bartlett, CEO of the Greater New Bedford Community Health Center.

Fewer than 10 “presumptive” cases exhibited clear symptoms before following isolation guidelines, but, owing to severely limited testing capacity, never received a positive test result.

“In the beginning of things like this we can lose some of the details,” Bartlett said. Though she was clear: “We have some presumptive cases in the city.”

The CDC announced 43 new monkeypox cases in Massachusetts last week, which brings the number to 157 across the state, though numbers are updated frequently.

In May, the first case of the current outbreak was reported when a Massachusetts man returned from a trip to Canada. Now with more than 7,500 cases across the country, the U.S. has more than 25% of the global case count. 

There have been no deaths attributed to monkeypox in the current outbreak, but on Thursday the Biden administration declared a public health emergency. The designation allows for an expedited transfer of resources and federal funds as part of a national public health response, which experts say has been lackluster.

So far the disease — which usually presents as a rash that looks like pimples or blisters, but also can cause fever, headache, or swollen lymph nodes, according to the CDC — has mainly affected gay and bisexual men who are sexually active.

Experts hope to minimize stigma, but also provide information to the communities most affected. The latest study from the CDC published on Friday found that 99% of U.S. monkeypox cases occurred in men, “94% of whom reported recent male-to-male sexual or close intimate contact.”

“By taking the lead, we take the stigma away,” said Andrew Pollock, president of the South Coast LGBTQ+ Network. Pollock is organizing a symposium on monkeypox with local healthcare providers.

“We need to take it seriously and get good information out as soon as possible,” he said. The LGBTQ+ Network will be publishing information on the symposium on their website and Facebook page, though Pollock said Aug. 25 is a likely date for the virtual event. 

“This really can transmit to anybody,” said Bartlett. At the Greater New Bedford Community Health Center, she and her team are “giving education to patients that are high risk,” including men who have sex with men. Bartlett said the city health department will be issuing a “joint public service announcement” in coordination with local health providers. 

New Bedford Health Department Director Damōn Chaplin said the city “will collaborate with local healthcare providers and community partners to support residents if needed.” While the confirmed case from June was diagnosed and treated in New Bedford, city officials said the person was not a city resident. 

Vaccines are currently available, including at Seven Hills Behavioral Health in New Bedford. Because transmission primarily comes from close skin-to-skin contact, the CDC recommends vaccination only for those who have already been exposed or are in high-risk categories. These include:

  • People who have been identified by public health officials as a contact of someone with monkeypox
  • People who know one of their sexual partners in the past 2 weeks has been diagnosed with monkeypox
  • People who had multiple sexual partners in the past 2 weeks in an area with known monkeypox

If you think you may be eligible for vaccination, the CDC recommends talking with your healthcare provider. An appointment can be made by calling the Seven Hills Behavioral Health at 774-634-3725, Monday through Friday between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.

What is monkeypox?

Monkeypox is a rare disease that is part of the same family of viruses as smallpox. The current outbreak has been identified as the West African type, which is rarely fatal and has not historically occurred outside of Africa. Another strain, called the Congo Basin type, has a higher fatality rate, but is not connected to the recent outbreak.

As of Friday, more than 98% of infections are in countries that have not historically reported monkeypox, the CDC found. Of the 28,220 global cases, only 345 were in the western and central African countries where the disease typically occurs.

More infections have been reported in the United States than in any of the 88 countries with at least one case.

Though two U.S. cases were reported in 2021, this is the first significant outbreak of monkeypox in the United States since 2003.

During the 2003 episode, there were 47 confirmed and probable cases, all of which were connected to people who had come into contact with pet prairie dogs imported from Ghana. According to the CDC, the 2003 outbreak was the first time the disease was ever reported outside of Africa.

People who become infected can experience symptoms for 2-4 weeks. The rash is the most common symptom and usually will appear before any others, which may include, fever, headache, muscle aches, swollen lymph nodes, chills, and respiratory symptoms (e.g. sore throat, nasal congestion, or cough), the CDC says.

Though most of the current outbreak has been attributed to close contact during sex, monkeypox is not a sexually transmitted infection (STI). Instead, the CDC says a better description is “sexually transmissible,” meaning that sex is just one way that monkeypox can spread.

There is no known connection between HIV and monkeypox.

Should I get vaccinated?

People who have had close contact with an infected individual or who have had multiple sexual partners in an area with many monkeypox infections may be at higher risk. Any individual who believes they fit this description should talk to a healthcare provider, experts say.

As of Friday, Massachusetts has updated its vaccination policy to a “first dose prioritization strategy.” This policy will ensure the maximum number of individuals eligible for monkeypox vaccine receive some protection, said Katheleen Conti, a spokesperson for the state Department of Public Health.

The vaccine, known as JYNNEOS, has been shown to provide “substantial, rapid protection” from a single dose. As of Aug. 8, no new second-dose appointments will be scheduled, though any already scheduled will be honored, Conti said.

The JYNNEOS vaccine is one of two vaccines stockpiled in the United States that, while originally designed for smallpox, provides protection against monkeypox; the other is known as ACAM2000.

Massachusetts has received several allocations of the JYNNEOS vaccine, but there is still a very limited supply, according to Conti. She said additional supplies are not expected to be available until Fall 2022.

Almost 6,000 vaccine doses have already been administered in Massachusetts, and information about the 14 current vaccination sites can be found on the vaccine website.

If you have talked with your healthcare provider, you can schedule a vaccination appointment by calling the Seven Hills Behavioral Health at 774-634-3725, Monday through Friday between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.

Email Colin Hogan at chogan@newbedfordlight.org

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