Monkeypox: What's a Pediatrician To Do?

Kristina A. Bryant, MD


July 13, 2022

Not long ago, a pediatrician working in a local urgent care clinic called me about a teenage girl with a pruritic rash. She described vesicles and pustules located primarily on the face and arms with no surrounding cellulitis or other exam findings.

Kristina A. Bryant, MD

“She probably has impetigo,” my colleague said. “But I took a travel and exposure history and learned that her grandma had recently returned home from visiting family in the Congo. Do you think I need to worry about monkeypox?”

While most pediatricians in the United States have never seen a case of monkeypox, the virus is not new. An orthopox, it belongs to the same genus that includes smallpox and cowpox viruses. It was discovered in 1958 when two colonies of monkeys kept for research developed pox-like rashes. The earliest human case was reported in 1970 in the Democratic Republic of Congo and now the virus is endemic in some counties in Central and West Africa.

Monkeypox virus is a zoonotic disease – it can spread from animals to people. Rodents and other small mammals – not monkeys – are thought to be the most likely reservoir. The virus typically spreads from person to person through close contact with skin or respiratory secretions or contact with contaminated fomites. Typical infection begins with fever, lymphadenopathy, and flulike symptoms that include headache and malaise. One to four days after the onset of fever, the characteristic rash begins as macular lesions that evolve into papules, then vesicles, and finally pustules. Pustular lesions are deep-seated, well circumscribed, and are usually the same size and in the same stage of development on a given body site. The rash often starts on the face or the mouth, and then moves to the extremities, including the palms and soles. Over time, the lesions umbilicate and ultimately crust over.

On May 20, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a Health Advisory describing a case of monkeypox in a patient in Massachusetts. A single case normally wouldn’t cause too much alarm. In fact, there were two cases reported in the United States in 2021, both in travelers returning to the United States from Nigeria, a country in which the virus is endemic. No transmissions from these individuals to close contacts were identified.

The Massachusetts case was remarkable for two reasons. It occurred in an individual who had recently returned from a trip to Canada, which is not a country in which the virus is endemic. Additionally, it occurred in the context of a global outbreak of monkey pox that has, to date, disproportionately affected individuals who identify as men who have sex with men. Patients have often lacked the characteristic prodrome and many have had rash localized to the perianal and genital area, with or without symptoms of proctitis (anorectal pain, tenesmus, and bleeding). Clinically, some lesions mimicked sexually transmitted infections that the occur in the anogenital area, including herpes, syphilis, and lymphogranuloma venereum.

As of May 31, 2022, 17 persons in nine states had been diagnosed with presumed monkeypox virus infection. They ranged in age from 28 to 61 years and 16/17 identified as MSM. Fourteen reported international travel in the 3 weeks before developing symptoms. As of June 12, that number had grown to 53, while worldwide the number of confirmed and suspected cases reached 1,584. Up-to-date case counts are available at

Back on the phone, my colleague laughed a little nervously. “I guess I’m not really worried about monkeypox in my patient.” She paused and then asked, “This isn’t going to be the next pandemic, is it?”

Public health experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization have been reassuring in that regard. Two vaccines are available for the prevention of monkeypox. JYNNEOS is a nonreplicating live viral vaccine licensed as a two-dose series to prevent both monkeypox and smallpox. ACAM 2000 is a live Vaccinia virus preparation licensed to prevent smallpox. These vaccines are effective when given before exposure but are thought to also beneficial when given as postexposure prophylaxis. According to the CDC, vaccination within 4 days of exposure can prevent the development of disease. Vaccination within 14 days of exposure may not prevent the development of disease but may lessen symptoms. Treatment is generally supportive but antiviral therapy could be considered for individuals with severe disease. Tecovirmat is Food and Drug Administration approved for the treatment of smallpox but is available under nonresearch Expanded Access Investigational New Drug (EA-IND) protocol for the treatment of children and adults with severe orthopox infections, including monkeypox.

So, what’s a pediatrician to do? Take a good travel history, as my colleague did, because that is good medicine. At this point in an outbreak though, a lack of travel does not exclude the diagnosis. Perform a thorough exam of skin and mucosal areas. When there are rashes in the genital or perianal area, consider the possibility of monkeypox in addition to typical sexually transmitted infections. Ask about exposure to other persons with similar rashes, as well as close or intimate contact with a persons in a social network experiencing monkeypox infections. This includes MSM who meet partners through an online website, app, or at social events. Monkeypox can also be spread through contact with an animal (dead or alive) that is an African endemic species or use of a product derived from such animals. Public health experts encourage clinicians to be alert for rash illnesses consistent with monkeypox, regardless of a patient’s gender or sexual orientation, history of international travel, or specific risk factors.

Pediatricians see many kids with rashes, and while cases of monkeypox climb daily, the disease is still very rare. Given the media coverage of the outbreak, pediatricians should be prepared for questions from patients and their parents. Clinicians who suspect a case of monkeypox should contact their local or state health department for guidance and the need for testing. Tips for recognizing monkeypox and distinguishing it from more common viral illnesses such as chicken pox are available at

Dr. Bryant is a pediatrician specializing in infectious diseases at the University of Louisville (Ky.) and Norton Children’s Hospital, also in Louisville. She said she had no relevant financial disclosures. Email her at

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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