AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:
It was just about a year ago that the U.S. was staring down yet another new viral outbreak. Mpox, which was formerly called monkeypox, was spreading fast. Luckily, the outbreak died down by the end of the year. But even though the country has seen very few new cases since, federal health officials are now warning of a possible surge in mpox cases this summer. NPR's Pien Huang joins us now to tell us more. Welcome to the show.
PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Hey, Ayesha.
RASCOE: So why is there this sudden concern about mpox again?
HUANG: Well, it started a few weeks ago when a dozen cases showed up in Chicago. That prompted the CDC to send out a health alert to doctors saying, hey, watch out for new cases. This could be coming back. And in the past few weeks, that outbreak in Chicago has grown to over 30 cases. Now, that's still really low compared to last summer. And people who are watching closely say it wasn't a complete surprise. Cases have been cropping up in Europe, but the Chicago cluster does show that mpox never fully went away here, and it could come back this summer.
RASCOE: So who exactly is at risk as we look ahead to the summer?
HUANG: Well, most of the cases in the U.S. have been in gay, bisexual, other men who have sex with men. Black and Latino men have been especially impacted. They've been making up two-thirds of the cases. And trans women are also at risk. And while mpox isn't only in these groups, it's been spreading mainly through intimate sexual contact with someone who has it. So with Pride events coming up, this is a time when a lot of people get together, party. There's concern that it could potentially fuel the spread. Here's Dr. Demetre Daskalakis with the White House mpox response team.
DEMETRE DASKALAKIS: Pride is the opportunity to actually reach out to people and prevent mpox. When you have everybody gathered, pounce 'cause you have an opportunity to teach them something.
RASCOE: I mean, there was a big push to get people vaccinated last year. How did that go?
HUANG: Well, Ayesha, it didn't actually end up reaching a lot of people, and there are huge geographic disparities. So the government estimates that there are 1.7 million people at high risk of mpox here, and only a quarter of them have gotten fully vaccinated with two doses of the mpox vaccine. Now, a lot of people who got first doses never came back for a second since case numbers started dropping late last year. And there are now some cases where people who were vaccinated or have recovered from mpox are getting new infections. So the White House's Daskalakis says the message to the communities at risk is to be aware.
DASKALAKIS: If you got a funny rash, it could be mpox, so go get tested. We're in a completely different horizon with our testing than we were a year ago, so testing is plentiful.
HUANG: And last year around this time, there were 6,000 tests available each week, and now there's 80,000.
RASCOE: You mentioned geographic disparities. Like, what was going on there?
HUANG: So because of the difference in vaccination rates, there are geographic disparities, as you mentioned. So some places are at risk of large, sustained outbreaks that could last for months, according to the CDC. These are cities like Memphis, Jacksonville, Fla., Cincinnati, Houston, Dallas. These are all in places with low vaccination rates. But other cities like San Francisco, New York, Washington, D.C., have high vaccination rates. So if mpox reappears in these places, it's more likely to be quickly contained. Daskalakis says that there's basically a storm brewing, and there are possible outbreaks of mpox on the horizon. But there are also ways to limit the impacts of that storm through vaccination and awareness.
RASCOE: That's NPR's Pien Huang. Thank you so much for joining us.
HUANG: You're welcome.
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