Smallpox, Chickenpox . . . Monkeypox?

This past summer a few people in the midwest came down with monkeypox, a viral disease related to smallpox but less infectious and a lot less deadly to humans. Oddly they all seem to have caught the disease from domesticated prairie dogs, which have become increasingly popular as pets. Like chickenpox, monkeypox causes fever, swollen lymph nodes, and a rash. Like smallpox and chickenpox, the spots can leave scars. Most people recover from monkeypox, but it is occasionally deadly.

Monkeypox is not usually found in North America. It is normally found in the rainforests of Africa, where it infects squirrels, rodents (and of course monkeys). It is assumed that the Wisconsin prairie dogs caught it at the pet store from exotic pets imported from Africa, possibly giant gambian rats (yes, some people consider these pets).

To prevent the virus from entering the wild rodent population in this country, the Centers for Disease Control banned the importation of rodents from Africa and set out strict guidelines for handling and quarantining suspected cases in pets. By the end of July there had been 37 confirmed monkeypox cases in humans, but there have been no more cases in this country since then.

About the Author

Sandy Becker, MA

Sandy BeckerSandy Becker received a BA in history from Pomona College. She then earned two MAs in Biology, and now has 25 years of experience in developmental biology research, working with mouse embryonic stem cells. Sandy began writing science articles about ten years ago to share her knowledge of science. She is currently studying for her third MA, in science journalism.