How serious is the monkeypox epidemic and what precautions can you take to avoid infection? Local doctors answer these questions and more.

Nassau’s former health commissioner suggested Wednesday that parents in close contact with someone at high risk for monkeypox reconsider giving lots of hugs and kisses to their young children.

“If you’re a parent, and you know you’re exposed to somebody who’s high risk for monkeypox, maybe it’s not a great time to spend a lot of time hugging and kissing your small child, because, in theory, the risk could be higher,” Dr. Lawrence Eisenstein, who stepped down late last month after 11 years as commissioner to take a private-sector job, said at a Newsday Live webinar about the outbreak.

A child under age 8, if infected, may be at greater risk for a severe bout of the disease, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

So far, 29 monkeypox cases have been reported of Suffolk residents, 16 from Nassau and 2,132 in New York. Nationwide, five children are reported to have been infected — in Indiana, California and Washington, D.C. — since the outbreak began in May. There have been 9,493 cases reported overall, as of Wednesday. 

About 98% or 99% of the reported cases in this outbreak — outside of west and central Africa, where the disease is endemic — are in men who have sex with men. Those currently at highest risk for monkeypox include men who have sex with anonymous or random male partners.

Webinar panelist Kraig Pannell, director of the state Health Department’s Office of LGBTQ Health Services, said: “I really want to avoid pathologizing and stigmatizing gay men, bisexual men and men who have sex with men. Yes, this disease was found predominantly in that population initially, but I don’t want to have people walk away from this thinking that this is the only population. Anyone can get monkeypox.”

On Aug. 5, Illinois public health officials announced that between 40 and 50 people, many of them children, were being screened for monkeypox and offered the vaccine, after someone who works at a day care facility tested positive and potentially exposed the group directly or through items the person had handled. None has tested positive so far. Typically, the vaccine, which can confer some protection even post-exposure, is federally authorized only for those 18 and older, but the U.S. government is making an exception for those children with parental approval.

The nation’s five pediatric cases are believed to have been the result of household transmission. The virus typically spreads by prolonged, skin-to-skin contact with monkeypox lesions, but potential modes of transmission in a household can include cuddling, feeding, prolonged holding, as well as sharing items such as towels, bedding, utensils and cups.

The first two such cases, in an infant and a toddler, were “traced back to individuals who come from the men-who-have-sex-with-men community, the gay men’s community,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told The Washington Post July 22, when the cases were disclosed.

An infection is unlikely to be transmitted during casual contact.

“This is not COVID,” Eisenstein said. “You’re not gonna catch this going into the grocery store and shopping. You’re not gonna catch this picking up a sandwich in a restaurant.”

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