This article is not intended as medical advice. If you have questions about monkeypox, consult your doctor or local health professionals.
On Thursday afternoon, the United States government declared a public health emergency over the spread of the monkeypox virus in the U.S. To date, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported 6,617 cases in the United States. The organization further reports 26,519 cases globally in 81 countries that have not historically reported monkeypox.
As of August 2, there were no reported deaths in the U.S. from monkeypox, with 9 deaths reported worldwide. The World Health Organization (WHO) says that the fatality rate of modern monkeypox has been around 3% to 6%, with different variants of the virus causing more severe symptoms. The disease tends to be more serious in people who are immunocompromised and children.
The European Centers for Disease Control (ECDC) says that monkeypox infections often begin with a combination of the following symptoms: fever, headache, chills, exhaustion, asthenia, lymph node swelling, back pain, and muscle aches.
Scientists are alarmed because the disease is behaving differently than it has in the past, where outbreaks usually came from outbreaks within animal populations.
While the spread of the virus has not quite reached the levels that we’ve seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, the specter of the coronavirus and early shutdowns of sporting activities like swimming is lingering in the mind of many Americans.
Monkeypox is endemic in several countries in Africa, but a rapid spread in North America and other countries without high rates of vaccination against the disease is causing concern. Unlike COVID-19, which was spread primarily through respiratory droplets, monkeypox is spread primarily through close contact with an infected person.
While the CDC and World Health Organization (WHO) both say that it is possible to contract monkeypox through respiratory secretions, it is most often spread through direct contact with the rash or sores on the body of someone who is infected, or in materials that have touched body fluids or sores, such as clothing or linens.
The theoretical spread through respiratory droplets would require close face-to-face contact, the CDC says. That spread would require “prolonged face-to-face contact,” such as kissing.
Monkeypox “is not known to linger in the air and is not transmitted during short periods of shared airspace,” which is different from COVID-19.
Investigations of the spread of other pox viruses, such as the more common molluscum contagiosum, has shown that spread is increased in swimming pools, the CDC says, but scientists have not yet found evidence of how or under what circumstances that spread might be increased.
Anyone who suspects they have an infection should seek immediate treatment from their doctor and avoid situations where they might spread the virus.
So what risk is there to swimming and other sports?
In the pool
Experts say that because the monkeypox virus is not waterborne, it is unlikely that it would be spread in a swimming pool (or hottub), particularly one that is well-maintained with proper chlorine levels.
Because there is very little person-to-person contact in swimming, and when there is it is not generally prolonged enough to spread the virus, the risk of spread in swim practices is low, according to current researchers.
Scientists have warned against sharing of towels or poolside clothing, however, which could have a greater risk of spreading the virus.
While there has not been any specific studies done on the spread of monkeypox through pools or hottubs, based on the nature of the virus, scientists have concluded that it is “unlikely” that it would be spread through a pool.
In the gym
Dr. Jessica Justman, associate professor of medicine in epidemiology at Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, said that contracting the virus at the gym is “unlikely,” though it can be spread through bodily fluids like sweat. There are a number of reasons why, including that most gym equipment is not very porous, and therefore easy to wipe off with proper cleaning practices that have become standard in gyms to fight the spread of other diseases like MRSA.
Cleaners and detergents are very effective against the monkeypox virus because it is an “enveloped virus,” which means that it is covered with a fatty membrane. That fatty membrane is easily broken by cleaning agents, destroying the virus.
More research is needed
Scientists are still researching whether the virus can be spread by an asymptomatic person or how often it is spread through respiratory secretions or sexual transmission.
While there are modern vaccines that are specific to monkeypox, because the disease is related to smallpox, the smallpox vaccine is believed to give some protection from monkeypox. Routine vaccination of the American public against smallpox stopped in 1972.