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New monkeypox cases highlight importance of tracking zoonotic diseases

The CDC says a U.S. case of monkeypox is not reason for alarm, but a program at the University of Minnesota says it is reason for better surveillance.

MINNEAPOLIS — After popping up in several European countries and Canada in recent days, the CDC says monkeypox has been identified in the United States.

A man from Massachusetts is now confirmed to have the virus, which is related to smallpox and causes flu-like symptoms and painful blisters — or "pox" — on the body.

 “The current patient is of no public health risk right now," said Dr. Paul Biddinger, director of the Center for Disaster Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. "People should just be aware of symptoms, but not be afraid in any way."

Dr. Matt Aliota is a leader of the University of Minnesota's Program of Zoonotic Viral Infections — diseases that spread from animals to people. He says monkeypox is commonly known to do exactly that in Africa. 

"Monkeypox is not a monkey virus," Dr. Aliota said. "It was originally isolated out of a monkey, but monkeys aren't the natural host. It's a virus that naturally infects small rodents and can then jump to humans through scratches or hunting and processing of meat."

Cases have popped up in the U.S. in the past,, including a six-state outbreak that infected 47 people in 2003, which was traced to pet prairie dogs that had been housed near imported, small mammals from Ghana. 

Unlike that outbreak, and other, more isolated cases linked directly to travels to Africa, Aliota says the current spread of cases is more concerning.

Dr. Aliota: "Spread is happening at an extent, or a level, that we haven't seen before. That suggests that maybe there is something different going on from what we know about monkeypox previously."

Kent Erdahl: "It seems like we've been hearing more about cases like this, of diseases going from animals to humans, but is that really the case?"

Dr. Aliota: "Yeah, I think we're starting to move into an era with both increased frequency and scope of zoonotic disease events."

A recent study in the journal "Nature" points to a big potential reason why. The report, "Climate Change Increases Cross-Species Transmission Risk" explains how the changing climate is forcing new interactions between species that have long been isolated.

"As we encroach on animal habitat and interact with animals like we have never done in the past, these events are becoming all the more frequent," Dr. Aliota said.

It's why Dr. Aliota and his colleagues are working with the Minnesota Department of Health to study local deer ticks for a different zoonotic disease.

"We're looking for Powassan virus, which is an emerging tick-borne virus in the upper Midwest," he said. "It can infect humans and cause fatal encephalitis, and so we are trying to understand how common it is in Minnesota tick populations."

The team is also working with Grand Portage Band of Chippewa to test moose, and soon black bears, for COVID.

"Black bears are now coming out of hibernation and rummaging through trash," Dr. Aliota said. "I've been told that they like to eat Kleenex and so if they are susceptible, there could be a likely pathway to infection of these animals."

Because the virus has already been found in deer and other animals, he says each new species, and pathway, could lead to changes and new variants of concern for humans. 

"If we can understand what animals are maintaining it in the wild, and if we can track virus spread in the wild, we're at least one step ahead — hopefully at least one step ahead — of the virus." 

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