CINCINNATI — There’ve been only two confirmed cases of monkeypox in Hamilton County, but a regional partnership spearheaded by Cincinnati City Council member Reggie Harris is working on a targeted awareness campaign to help ensure those numbers don’t climb any higher.

What You Need To Know

  • Cincinnati and Hamilton County teamed up for a targeted awareness campaign to help stop the spread of monkeypox

  • In the United States, most cases of monkeypox occur in men who have sex with men, per UC Health

  • The campaign also aims to de-stigmatize monkeypox so people feel comfortable coming forward for testing, treatment

  • A vaccine for monkeypox is available, but right now it's reserved for those with monkeypox or who've been in close contact with someone who has it

Harris, elected leaders and medical officials gathered at a public health center in Cincinnati’s Northside neighborhood to discuss the status of monkeypox and work they’re doing to address it. They said awareness is key to the effort.

“This is absolutely something that we have control over because we can make very clear short-term decisions about our body and our contact with people,” Harris said. “There are very simple, easy steps that anyone can follow to be able to mitigate the impacts of this virus.”

Since May 17, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has tracked the spread of monkeypox across the United States. The disease isn’t new, but the CDC hasn’t seen many cases of it in this country.

Monkeypox spreads by skin contact. Typically, it isn’t fatal unless someone has an underlying condition or is immunocompromised, per the CDC. The disease often feels like the flu at first. It also causes a potentially painful rash and pimple-like blemishes that can scar after scabbing over.

So far, there’ve been 5,189 total confirmed cases in 47 states and Puerto Rico, according to CDC data. There’s been a steady climb in cases over the past few weeks, including a record 439 confirmed cases reported by the CDC on July 25.

Ohio has only had 23 reported cases across the state. That includes the two confirmed by the Cincinnati Health Department last week.

For Harris, the issue is personal. A self-identifying member of the LGBTQ+ community, Harris noted that most of the cases of the confirmed cases of monkeypox affect men who have sex with other men. UC Health confirmed that information Monday.

Monkeypox gets spread most commonly through direct skin-on-skin contact, according to the CDC. That could be sex or kissing or any type of touching. 

The CDC states the disease can spread until the rash heals. That means the scabs have fallen off and a fresh layer of skin has formed. That process can take several weeks.

“I think it’s very important to do a targeted campaign to that community to say, ‘Hey, this is going around so be super aware and observant,’” he said.

Harris didn't provide specific details about what the outreach will look like. He stated, though, there'd also be more general messaging as well since “everyone needs to take the same precautions.”

“We’re in a really good place in Ohio right now," he added. "We want to make sure we stay there and we decrease and that’s only going to be through really proactive engagement."

Harris feels the engagement is important because of “difficult stigmas” that may result from contract tracing. The freshman council member worries many people in the LGBTQ+ community fear contracting monkeypox, and others may choose not to coming forward out of fear of being labeled.

He described the current monkeypox situation as “little echoes of a time before when we think about other illnesses that may have had a more specific population” that it targeted.

The CDC and local health departments have worked hard to “de-stigmatize the monkeypox virus” to ensure no one gets discriminated against, Harris noted. But without causing “hysteria,” he wants to ensure information is available to those who need it most.

“It’s a delicate situation, and it must be handled with care, while also providing very clear and direct messaging,” Harris said.

Hamilton County Commissioner Denise Driehaus credited Harris with being proactive about this issue.

“Council member Harris called me the other day and said, ‘Hey, what are we doing about monkeypox? We’ve got a couple of cases here in Cincinnati,” she said. “People are asking questions. They want to know what the disease is, how the disease is spread, and what we can do about it locally to try to prevent monkeypox from becoming a larger issue here in Cincinnati and in Hamilton County.’”

The city and county announced Monday that they plan to move swiftly with their engagement strategy. Part of the reason they’re able to do this is because of the work they’ve done combating COVID-19 over the past two years, Driehaus said.

She referred to monkeypox as “Drill No. 2."

“We already have an infrastructure that we have used because of COVID-19. Before that, we didn’t have this kind of automatic collaboration,” Driehaus said. “But we have a system now that we can stand up because we’ve been through this before.”

“We all now know how to work together with one another to make sure this community is informed and we’re providing accurate information so people can remain safe,” she added.

Dr. Jennifer Forrester, an infectious disease specialist with UC Health, reiterated throughout Monday’s event that monkeypox can affect anyone.

Spread can happen through any close skin-to-skin contact, she said. But she also noted cases where it’s believed the disease spread through bed linens and towels.

Some people who have it may feel like they have the flu. “They’ll have a headache, they might have a fever, they might have body aches, and then typically that’s followed by a rash a few days later,” she said. Other people will just get the rash.

Precautions you can take against monkeypox are simple and not much different from avoiding any illness, Forrester said. Wash your hands often and if you feel sick or notice a rash, talk to your doctor.

“It’s really about watching your body, knowing your symptoms,” she said. “Because even during that time, if you would develop symptoms, you’d want to isolate and prevent transmission to others.”

Because monkeypox isn’t new, there’s already a vaccine for it. But there isn’t a lot of it available.

If given within about four days of contact, the success of preventing the transfer of the “signs of monkeypox” is about 85%, Forrester said. She added the rate “comes down a little bit” if given four to 14 days after exposure, but it’s still pretty high.”

Right now, neither the Hamilton County nor Cincinnati health departments recommend everyone get the monkeypox vaccine. That’s at least partly because there’s not much of it, according to Grant Mussman, Cincinnati’s interim health director.

The vaccines are being portioned out to the states based on the CDC’s risk calculation, Mussman said.

“The strategy with vaccination right now is to get the vaccine into the arms of folks who are recently exposed, or who are early in their symptom course,” he added. “The rationale there is even if you’re early in the symptom course, and you have monkeypox, you can actually decrease the duration of heavy active lesions and decrease the likelihood of spreading of it.”

Forrester advised anyone who believes they have monkeypox or have had a monkeypox exposure to visit their primary care physician as soon as possible.

“The other thing I hope we’ve learned through COVID, are ways that everyone can protect themselves,” she said. “Wash your hands. That’s one of the ways that we can protect everyone.”

More information is available on the Hamilton County Public Health’s monkeypox website.