Dear Doctors: How long does the smallpox vaccine remain effective? I ask because I received it as a child in the 1950s. Does anyone know if the vaccine would be effective against monkeypox some 60 years later, or is a booster needed? Does a booster exist?
Dear reader: With cases of monkeypox spreading around the world, concerns about this rare virus are growing. The disease, which is endemic to central and western Africa, began to appear in Europe and the United States in May. Since then, the United States has recorded more than 350 cases. Still, health officials warn that due to lack of knowledge about the disease and limited testing, the true number of cases in this country is likely higher. We’ve discussed this outbreak before, but with cases on the rise, we think a recap is wise.
Monkeypox is related to smallpox, but the disease it causes is not as severe. For the majority of people infected, the symptoms resemble those of the flu. This includes fever, chills, headache, body aches, swollen lymph nodes, and fatigue. In more severe cases, patients develop a rash and distinctive lesions, most commonly on the hands, face, and soles of the feet.
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Monkeypox is not known to linger in the air and is not transmitted during brief periods of shared airspace. Instead, the disease is most often spread through direct physical contact with an infected person or with their bodily fluids. Since the sores can be inside the body, including the mouth, vagina, or anus, sexual transmission is possible. The virus can also spread through contact with objects that have touched the infectious rash or bodily fluids, such as sheets or clothing.
An infected individual is contagious from the onset of symptoms. Those who develop a rash or lesions may continue to spread the disease until the rash is completely healed and covered with a new layer of skin.
Adults like you who received the smallpox vaccine during the national program in effect from the late 1940s until 1972 are thought to have continued immunity. This includes members of the United States military, who continued to be vaccinated against smallpox until 1991.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that, based on previous data collected in Africa, the smallpox vaccine is at least 85% effective in preventing monkeypox. However, since this situation is so new, the precise degree of protection is not known. Researchers say that while older adults who have been vaccinated against smallpox may be susceptible to monkeypox infection, they will likely only experience mild symptoms. Data shows that the majority of healthy adults who are infected do not become seriously ill. And to your question about smallpox boosters, no they are not available.
To combat this epidemic, the United States has just purchased 2.5 million doses of vaccine against monkeypox, which adds to the 500,000 doses already stockpiled. Distribution to high-risk individuals is expected to begin soon. You can find detailed information on smallpox and monkeypox on the CDC website. Visit cdc.gov/poxvirus and click on the appropriate link.