Scientists warned us about monkeypox in 1988. Here’s why they were right.
Back in 1988, scientists in London almost seem to have had a crystal ball.
Writing in the International Journal of Epidemiology, they made a bold – and surprisingly prescient – prediction about monkeypox: Over time, “the average magnitude and duration of monkeypox epidemics will increase,” they wrote.
At the time, monkeypox was an extremely rare disease. Health-care workers detected only a few cases a year in West and Central Africa. People caught the disease almost exclusively from rodents or primates and then spread the virus to only a few people. Transmission between people was limited.
But the foresighted scientists warned that, over time, these sporadic outbreaks would grow in size and spread geographically. “In every monkeypox paper on previous outbreaks, there’s always a warning about how we need to prepare for more outbreaks in the future,” says infectious disease doctor Boghuma Titanji of Emory University. “That prediction has actually borne out.”
Back in the 1990s, there were only about 50 monkeypox cases a year in West and Central Africa. Jump ahead 20 years, and in 2020, there were likely more than 5,000 cases, scientists reported in February.
Now, in 2022, the world is facing the first international outbreak of monkeypox, with more than 450 cases reported in about 20 countries. Many scientists believe additional cases are going undetected, and the virus is likely spreading in communities where monkeypox has never spread before.
So how did the scientists in London know, way back in 1988, that monkeypox was going to eventually surge?
The smallpox connection
“What we’re seeing now is a result of the greatest achievement in public health. That is the eradication of smallpox,” says epidemiologist Anne Rimoin of the University of California, Los Angeles.
Smallpox is one of the deadliest diseases in human history. The highly contagious virus kills up to 30% of the people infected. By comparison, the version of monkeypox in this outbreak kills less than 1% of people infected.
“So monkeypox, in all of its iterations, is much less severe than smallpox,” Rimoin says.
Through a massive vaccination campaign, the world officially eliminated smallpox in 1980. That achievement saved millions of lives each year.
But as Rimoin explains, the end of smallpox had a repercussion: It opened the door for monkeypox to emerge, possibly worldwide.
“Of course, we’re going to see other viruses emerge that may fill that void or that niche. And that’s what we’re seeing,” she says.
So why has monkeypox been the virus to fill that void? It’s because of what’s known as cross-immunity.
Monkeypox is closely related to smallpox. They’re both in the same virus family. Having a smallpox infection – or a smallpox vaccine– offers really good protection against smallpox as well as monkeypox. Perhaps about 85% protection, one study estimated. In other words, protection against smallpox, also cross-protects against monkeypox.
So back in the 1970s, essentially the entire world’s population had some immunity to monkeypox, says epidemiologist Jo Walker of the Yale School of Public Health. Most people were either vaccinated for smallpox or survived an infection.
“Smallpox is a really old disease,” Walker says. “Most people were infected, at some point in their lives, often in childhood, or they were vaccinated. So in a sense, here was a lot of immunity in the population to this family of viruses [40 years ago].”
But then in the late 1970s, the world stopped vaccinating people for smallpox. And people, thankfully, stopped getting infected. So over the past four decades, immunity to smallpox – and monkeypox – has dropped precipitously.
“So over time, new babies were born and they didn’t get the vaccine and they didn’t get infected with smallpox,” Walker says. “Many of the older people who were vaccinated for smallpox or had an infection have died.”
As a result, now the world’s population has very little immunity to monkeypox. “We’re actually at a point where population immunity against monkeypox is the lowest it’s been in basically thousands of years,” they say.
Without some immunity, people are more likely to catch monkeypox from an animal and spread it to someone else. So an outbreak in West Africa that would have been small in the 1990s is much bigger today. And the chance for it spilling into other continents has risen.
Since immunity in the population won’t rise substantially in the near future, these international outbreaks of monkeypox will likely become more common with time.
Now there is a vaccine for monkeypox. Vaccinating people who have come into contact with infected people can help health officials stop transmission quickly.
Otherwise, scientists are concerned that this virus could establish a permanent presence in Europe or North America, says Anne Rimoin of UCLA.
“Nigeria has had a series of outbreaks and continued cases [for the past 5 years], and the virus has probably established itself in some animal hosts there, which will perpetuate human cases there, like we see in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” she explains. “We want to avoid monkeypox getting established this way in other countries.”
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
The world is facing the first international outbreak of a rare disease – monkeypox. Although there are only about 350 known cases, the virus is spreading in more than a dozen countries, places that have never seen monkeypox before. In the U.S., there are cases in California, Florida, Massachusetts, New York, Utah, Virginia and Washington. As NPR’s Michaeleen Doucleff explains, the virus has emerged worldwide for a remarkable reason.
MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: Back in 1988, scientists made a bold prediction that over time, monkeypox would spread. Outbreaks in Africa would grow in size and frequency, and the virus could eventually spill over into other continents.
BOGHUMA TITANJI: And that has actually borne out because if you look at the past 10 years, the number of monkeypox outbreaks that have happened have potentially increased through that time.
DOUCLEFF: That’s Boghuma Titanji. She’s an infectious disease doctor at Emory University. She says back then, people typically caught the virus from an animal, like a squirrel, in Central Africa and then spread the virus to only a few people.
TITANJI: In West and Central Africa, there have been relatively small-sized outbreaks happening in Nigeria, in the DRC, in Cameroon, etc.
DOUCLEFF: But over the past few decades, these outbreaks have grown. For example, in the 1990s, there were about 50 cases reported each year. By 2020, cases in the region have likely shot up more than 100 times to over 5,000 cases each year. Anne Rimoin is another scientist who predicted this rise. She’s an epidemiologist at the University of California Los Angeles. She knew cases were going to rise largely because of one uncanny reason.
ANNE RIMOIN: Eradication of smallpox.
DOUCLEFF: Yes, you heard that right. Monkeypox is spreading on four continents right now in large part because, in 1980, the world eliminated another virus – smallpox.
RIMOIN: It was really important. It was the greatest achievement in human public health history.
DOUCLEFF: Smallpox is one of the deadliest diseases in human history. Eradicating it has saved millions of lives each year because it’s very contagious and kills up to 30% of the people infected. In contrast, this version of monkeypox kills fewer than 1%.
RIMOIN: So monkeypox in all of its iterations is much less severe than smallpox.
DOUCLEFF: But, as Rimoin explains, wiping out this killer did have a repercussion. It opened the door for monkeypox to emerge, possibly worldwide.
RIMOIN: Of course, we’re going to see, you know, other viruses emerge that may fill that void, fill that niche. And that’s what we’re seeing.
DOUCLEFF: So why has that virus been monkeypox? Jo Walker is an epidemiologist at Yale School of Public Health. They says it’s all about immunity. Monkeypox is closely related to smallpox, and being sick with smallpox or being vaccinated against it offers really good immunity to smallpox and to monkeypox. But for 40 years now, Walker says, immunity has been rapidly declining.
JO WALKER: So over time, new babies were born. And they didn’t get the vaccine, and they didn’t get infected with smallpox in childhood.
DOUCLEFF: And many people who were vaccinated have died. So the world’s population, over time, has become more and more susceptible to monkeypox.
WALKER: And so we’re actually at a point where population immunity against monkeypox is at the lowest it’s been basically in thousands of years.
DOUCLEFF: And people all over the world, from Nigeria to Massachusetts, are much more likely to catch monkeypox and spread it. And what would have been a small outbreak decades ago has the potential to be a huge one today. There is a vaccine that can stop outbreaks quickly. Otherwise, there’s a chance a virus that was once extremely rare could become much more common everywhere. Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.