Monkeypox can contaminate surfaces, unclear if contagious - study

While scientists were able to identify monkeypox viral contamination on surfaces. However, they were unable to determine if one could actually contract the disease from these surfaces.

 An electron microscopic (EM) image shows mature, oval-shaped monkeypox virus particles as well as crescents and spherical particles of immature virions, obtained from a clinical human skin sample associated with the 2003 prairie dog outbreak in this undated image obtained by Reuters on May 18, 2022 (photo credit: CYNTHIA S. GOLDSMITH, RUSSELL REGENCY/CDC/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
An electron microscopic (EM) image shows mature, oval-shaped monkeypox virus particles as well as crescents and spherical particles of immature virions, obtained from a clinical human skin sample associated with the 2003 prairie dog outbreak in this undated image obtained by Reuters on May 18, 2022
(photo credit: CYNTHIA S. GOLDSMITH, RUSSELL REGENCY/CDC/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

Can the monkeypox virus contaminate surfaces? According to a recent study in Germany, that seems to be the case.

Scientists are continuing to study the viral monkeypox outbreak, which has since spread outside of its endemic areas of Central Africa and West Africa to countries all over the world. But questions remain about the disease that is being spread.

According to the study published in the peer-reviewed academic journal Eurosurveillance, monkeypox was found to contaminate surfaces in the hospital rooms of confirmed patients.

What is monkeypox?

Monkeypox is a disease caused by the monkeypox virus, itself a zoonotic disease that can infect certain animals, such as people. 

Since May 2022, cases have been cropping up around the world, especially in Western Europe.

 A section of skin tissue, harvested from a lesion on the skin of a monkey, that had been infected with monkeypox virus (credit: CDC HANDOUT VIA REUTERS) A section of skin tissue, harvested from a lesion on the skin of a monkey, that had been infected with monkeypox virus (credit: CDC HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

The disease can be contracted in a number of ways but is typically spread when the virus is able to get inside the body through either inhalation, openings in the eyes, nose, or mouth, or just through broken skin. 

It is for this reason that many people who are close to certain kinds of animals have to be careful. Though, while the disease is called monkeypox, and while monkeys can have it, it does not actually come from them.

But exactly how it is spreading now is unclear, since normally, person-to-person transmission of the disease is very rare, though it is possible it may be linked to the many mutations discovered in the strain that's spreading.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), monkeypox is transmitted from one person to another by close contact with lesions, bodily fluids and respiratory droplets.

But what about contaminated surfaces and material? 

Unfortunately, the research on this has been lacking thus far. But this study hopes to change that.

The study

The researchers went to a German hospital and studied the surfaces in the rooms of monkeypox patients as well as the nearby anterooms where personal protective equipment (PPE) is put on and taken off.

This was done through environmental sampling by swabbing surfaces in the rooms. This included fabrics, large surfaces, door handles, gloves and even cell phones. 

It was then compared to samples obtained from patients' lesions or throats.

The two patients in question were both men in their 30s who suffered lesions and other symptoms. Notably, lesions were present on the anuses of both patients, with the first patient also suffering from lesions on their genitals. 

With that in mind, it isn't much of a surprise that the highest amount monkeypox viral contamination on surfaces was found in both of the patients' bathrooms

However, it was also detected on fabrics, cabinet doors and other places sampled. Naturally, fabrics used by the patients frequently like pillowcases, towels and clothing saw monkeypox viral contamination as well.

Can you catch monkeypox from contaminated surfaces?

According to the WHO, it is possible for contaminated fabrics like bedding to infect one with monkeypox. However, as far as the study is concerned, it is unclear if it can actually lead to monkeypox infection in humans. 

Detecting viral contamination, the study argued, doesn't equate to an infectious virus

So what did we learn from the study?

Every surface that the two patients touched showed monkeypox contamination. What this means is that while we can't be sure if these surfaces will infect people, we do know that regular disinfection and sanitation can prevent it from spreading further

In particular, healthcare workers should immediately wash and disinfect their hands after removing PPE. 

For those living in the same home with a confirmed monkeypox patient, one should be careful to disinfect surfaces that could be infected.

More research is needed to determine whether it is possible for the amount of monkeypox viral contamination on surfaces to transmit the disease.

Tzvi Joffre contributed to this report.