Remaining on alert: how monkeypox could spread back to animals from humans

Monkeypox can spread back to animals from humans
While the monkeypox outbreak continues to spread amongst humans, the World Organisation for Animal Health (WOAH, founded as OIE) explains the precautions to take in order to protect animals from the increase in reverse spillover of the disease back into animals.

Monkeypox has become the star of recent health news, affecting over 16,000 people in at least 75 countries around the world. Like many other diseases, such as COVID-19 which affected 23 different animal species, monkeypox could cross the species barrier and jump to domestic and wild animals, putting everyone’s health at risk. At the World Organisation for Animal Health, our mission is to improve animal health globally. As monkeypox endangers us all, we must insist on why and how precautions should be taken to reduce the risk of transmission to animals.

Although the current outbreak of monkeypox is driven by human-to-human contact, the disease is known to be of animal origin and can therefore be passed on to certain species.  Various wild mammals have been identified as susceptible to the monkeypox virus, such as rope squirrels, tree squirrels, Gambian pouched rats, dormice and non-human primates. While some of these species exhibit signs and symptoms of the disease, others might not show any external or visible signs, which makes it more challenging to identify spillover events.

Very recently, monkeypox was detected in a dog most likely as a result of human to animal transmission following close direct contact with its owners who were symptomatic with the disease. This was the first documented case of human to animal transmission of the virus. We must remain vigilant. In case of further spillback of the virus from infected humans to animals, new animal reservoirs could be established, and the virus could become endemic in new geographic areas, heightening future risks for public health as well.

The World Organisation for Animal Health is closely monitoring the situation, in coordination with its experts because the heightened prevalence in humans may increase the risk of transmission to animals, and affect the epidemiology of the disease.

Dr Monique Eloit, Director General at the World Organisation for Animal Health

Viral transmission from humans to animals is a possibility that we need to further investigate to understand how likely this is to happen. All settings where we interact closely with animals, like zoos, wildlife rehabilitation facilities, hiking trails or at home with our pets, can facilitate the virus jumping from us to them. The monkeypox virus can enter the body through skin lesions (even those invisible to the naked eye), respiratory tracts, or mucous membranes.

A few (and simple!) precautions must therefore be taken. Always ensure that all waste, including medical waste, is safely disposed of and made inaccessible to rodent or other scavenger animals. And, if you are suspected or confirmed to be infected with the monkeypox virus, you should avoid all direct contact with animals, including livestock, wildlife, and even your pets.

We all need to be cautious. Monkeypox is yet another example of how human and animal health are interconnected. Only with strong multi-sectoral collaboration between public health experts, veterinarians, and wildlife authorities can we tackle diseases such as monkeypox, and ensure a safe future for us all.