Monkeypox: The Latest Public Health Emergency and What That Means for Workers
by AnaStacia Nicol Wright
The world can seem like a scary one ever since the onslaught of Covid-19, especially for employees working in public-facing sectors, and now monkeypox has been declared as a public health emergency of international concern by the World Health Organization (WHO). So far there is very little being said about precautions to protect the public, and no one is talking about workers.
What do you need to know about this new pandemic? What are your rights in the workplace?
What is Monkeypox?
Monkeypox first emerged in the 1970s but seemed to have all but disappeared from the “developed world” but in 2022 it busted back on the scene (literally–monkeypox typically appears as bumps and pustules forming amidst a rash). It is spread by skin-to-skin contact and through droplets from face-to-face interactions with an infected person.
- direct contact with the infectious rash, scabs, or body fluids
- respiratory secretions during prolonged, face-to-face contact, or during intimate physical contact, such as kissing, cuddling, or sex
- touching items (such as clothing or linens) that previously touched the infectious rash or body fluids
- pregnant people can spread the virus to their fetus through the placenta
However, Dr. Rosamund Lewis with WHO said that in addition to these, “there may be some new things happening in this outbreak now. We don’t know everything. There’s still a lot to learn”.
Luckily, monkeypox is rarely fatal. Symptoms of monkeypox can include:
- Muscle aches and backache
- Swollen lymph nodes
- A rash that can look like pimples or blisters that appears on the face, inside the mouth, and on other parts of the body, like the hands, feet, chest, genitals, or anus.
While this doesn’t mean you should think every rash or ingrown hair is monkeypox, you should always consult with your doctor if you have symptoms or concerns.
Which Workers are Most at Risk?
Because the virus is mostly spread via skin-to-skin contact, WHO states that workers most at risk are those in healthcare. However, in being proactive we should think about all workers who may have skin-to-skin contact. This includes non-medical staff working in nursing home, child daycares, adult daycare centers, sex workers, and all other positions where employees are likely to have direct person-to-person skin contact.
Can Monkeypox Be Treated?
Monkeypox has been around for awhile. It was “discovered” in 1958 and first appeared in humans in 1970. Luckily, scientists have had time to test and experiment with it, and there is a vaccine. In addition to the JYNNEOS vaccine, which has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to prevent both smallpox and monkeypox (and found to help protect against monkeypox if given before or shortly after an exposure), there is evidence that smallpox vaccines may be effective against the virus — because they are similar in their biological makeup.
Okay, What’s the Risk to Workers?
There’s never been an outbreak of monkeypox like we’re seeing today. The rapidity with which the virus is spreading is concerning to scientists. Furthermore, science is still learning about the virus, how it transmits, and its effects. Dr. Rosamund Lewis with WHO says that, “Most people who have monkeypox do not become very ill. However, WHO has described the risk as moderate because monkeypox is spreading in locations where it has never been reported before.”
Our purpose here is not to be alarmist. The spread of monkeypox does not, at present, appear to be aerosol like COVID-19, and there are vaccines which should be effective. However, as we’ve seen with COVID-19, rapidly spreading viruses may also mutate to become more deadly, more transmissible and even untreatable. Being proactive, identifying who is at risk and implementing preemptive measures is crucial for containing this virus. COVID-19 was approached in the opposite way and we’re still reeling from those decisions to this day. We don’t need to wait for another tragedy to teach us to take pandemics seriously.
How Strong Policy and Laws Can Help Workers
This seemingly random uptick in monkeypox further illustrates how imperative workplace protections such as the Emergency Temporary Standard for COVID-19 (ETS) and the Aerosol Transmissible Disease Standard (ATD) are. We’ve been warned that we will only see more and more pandemics in the coming years, and for another to arrive so quickly on the heels of Covid ought to really drive home how urgently we need a general industry ATD in place before we’re running around, desperately trying to protect workers as we’re hit with virus after virus after virus. Furthermore, while the ETS does not explicitly include protections for anything besides COVID-19, its protections can be easily adapted if prophylactic measures are already in place.