Health officials are urging caution amid a resurgence of monkeypox in Chicago.
The Chicago Department of Public Health reported five cases this year through mid-April. But since then, 20 cases have been detected, according to department data.
Now referred to by health experts as empox, the disease spread rapidly across the country last summer, particularly among gay and bisexual men. It arrived in Chicago in early June and was infecting more than 100 Chicagoans per week by mid-July, but cases quickly peaked due to widespread efforts to prevent it through vaccination and careful distribution.
The resurgence of the disease comes at the beginning of the summer season and is quickly approaching with large gatherings that present the most affected groups. Chicago Public Health Director Dr. Alison Arwady and other health professionals are urging at-risk populations to help stop the spread of the virus, which causes painful rashes and flu-like symptoms.
“It’s important for people to protect themselves. It’s hard. It is preventable. You can easily get your Mpox vaccine,” Arwadi said last week.
Howard Brown Health saw just one case in a 14-week period earlier this year, spokesman Wyren O’Kelly told the Tribune on Tuesday. But an LGBTQ-focused Chicago health center treated 11 new cases last month, he said.
“We’ve gone from basically nothing to an incredible level,” O’Kelly said.
Although the disease is most often transmitted sexually, it can be transmitted through any type of prolonged skin-to-skin contact, O’Kelley said. It usually starts with flu-like symptoms before developing into a rash one to three days later. Those rashes, like pimples or blisters, usually appear first around the genital area and rear end, but can also appear on the mouth, hands and back, he said.
The disease has spread primarily to gay and bisexual men in Chicago, although other people have been infected, CDF data show.
O’Kelly says Howard Brown is trying to “make noise” about small issues to prevent a big fuss. Last summer, more than 800 Chicagoans were infected with the virus less than three months after the city’s first case was discovered. O’Kelly said the current resurgence is somewhat expected because infectious diseases tend to increase in the summer.
“We think for a lot of people, this kind of fell off the radar,” she said. “Hopefully this winter it won’t be a big deal.
She urged people to make their sexual partners and other close contacts aware of their vaccination and health status. Other precautions include washing hands and wearing a mask during flu-like symptoms, she said.
Howard Brown is focusing his advocacy efforts on upcoming LGBTQ-focused events, including Pride month in June and the international Mr. Skin conference that will bring thousands of gay men from around the world to Chicago in late May, O’Kelly said.
Starting May 25, organizers of the International Mr. Laser Conference said on their website that they are working with the White House and the Chicago Department of Public Health to encourage guests to get vaccinated for pox. Conference organizers did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
While the vaccine used to prevent the disease was in short supply last summer, O’Kelly said access is expanding as supply chains develop and demand declines.
“The shortage has dried up,” she said. “If you want and qualify, we can deliver.”
Most of the Mepox patients that Howard Brown treated recently were previously vaccinated, O’Kelly said. The vaccine has caused serious cases with “far, far milder” symptoms, she said. She added that Howard Brown is accepting vaccination appointments and doing walk-in vaccinations at clinics in the city.
Arwadi echoed the importance of vaccination, saying at-risk Chicagoans have free access to CDFH’s sexually transmitted disease vaccination clinics. The Department of Public Health recommends the vaccine JYNNEOS for bisexual men, gay men and transgender people, as well as anyone who has been in close contact with someone who has been infected with Mepox.
While many cases of measles are not serious, the disease has killed three people in Chicago and hospitalized 77, officials said. Some cases can be prolonged and severe, says Dr. Beverly Sha, an infectious disease physician at Rush University Health.
Sha recalls one patient whose case lasted six months, in and out of hospital care, and who was “honestly miserable.”
“If we can encourage people to get vaccinated and take other precautions if they don’t take it, we can reduce future cases,” Shah said Tuesday.
The current Mpox resurgence may not be the end of the disease, she added. She urged people at risk to practice safe sex by limiting sexual partners, especially unknown partners, and using condoms during sex.
The hospital system is using the antiviral drug Tecovirmat, with ongoing trials continuing to determine the drug’s effectiveness in treating the disease. She encouraged those who tested positive to get to the hospital to participate in the tests.
People who recently tested positive for pox in Chicago traveled to other cities and countries shortly after, Sha said, citing data shared by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention through early May.
The city said it is difficult to say how many investigations are missing. And it’s hard to predict whether cases will escalate as winter sets in.
“We don’t know which way this is going to go,” Sha said.