In a statement released today, Australia’s chief medical officer Paul Kelly declared monkeypox a “communicable disease incident of national significance”, indicating how Australia would respond to the unfolding public health concern.

So far, Australia has seen 44 cases of monkeypox – the majority of which have been among returned international travellers. In the last six months, there have been 20,311 cases in 71 countries (including here) that have not historically reported the disease.

Earlier this month, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared monkeypox a public health emergency of international concern – the strongest call to action the agency can make, according to the Guardian.

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The decision to declare monkeypox “a communicable disease incident of national significance” means Australia can implement a national policy, interventions and public messaging around the disease.

Kelly urged the general public not to think of monkeypox in the same way as Covid-19, saying “It is important to note that although I have declared monkeypox to be a communicable disease incident of national significance, it is far less harmful than Covid-19 and there have been no deaths reported during the current outbreak outside of countries where the virus is endemic.”

Monkeypox is also far less transmissible. Most cases of monkeypox in Australia have appeared in 21- to 40-year-olds, Kelly confirmed, noting that “the experience internationally and in Australia to date is most cases have been among gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men.” It is not, however, considered a sexually transmissible infection.

The signs and symptoms of monkeypox infection can include a rash, fever, headache and swollen lymph nodes. The rash lesions can look like chickenpox blisters, but larger.

Symptoms begin five to 21 days after exposure and, in most cases, the rash and flu-like symptoms “resolve themselves within two to four weeks without the need for specific treatments”, says the statement.

The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (Atagi) has since updated its clinical guidance on vaccination against monkeypox. This includes the use of a smallpox vaccine, Jynneos.

Atagi’s advice is that for healthy non-pregnant adults for whom Jynneos is not suitable or not available, vaccine ACAM2000 “may be considered for those exposed to the virus or at high risk of exposure”.

Kelly’s statement confirms the National Medical Stockpile has a stock of antivirals available that states and territories can access on request.

Find out more about monkeypox.