The monkeypox epidemic in the United States appears to be slowing down slightly – welcome news after several months of confusion and uncertainty. Still, experts say we’re not entirely clear. Researchers are continuing to study the disease and are taking a closer look at potential risks, as the virus has spread to dozens of countries outside of endemic areas, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Example: New research suggests that monkeypox can lead to neurological complications in very rare cases. In many people, however, the disease can cause distressing psychological symptoms, including anxiety and depression.
For the meta-analysis, recently published in the journal eClinicalMedicine, researchers in the UK analyzed the results of 19 studies involving a total of 1,512 participants, 1,031 of whom tested positive for monkeypox. (It is important to note that these studies were done using data from previous outbreaks.) Researchers found that up to 3% of people with monkeypox developed rare but serious neurological complications such as seizures, confusion or a type of brain inflammation called encephalitis.
It sounds scary, but don’t worry too much just yet, experts say. “We don’t expect a wave of serious brain problems with monkeypox, but complications such as encephalitis and seizures can occur in small proportions of people,” said the co-lead author of the study, James Badenoch, MBChB, academic foundation physician at Barts Health NHS Trust and the Preventive Neurology Unit at Queen Mary University of London, tells SELF. “Although monkeypox primarily causes flu-like symptoms and skin problems, neuropsychiatric symptoms are also commonly reported.” These range from the most likely side effects, such as headaches, muscle aches and fatigue, to rare brain complications, he adds.
More frequently, people with monkeypox seemed to experience a fairly noticeable drop in their mood. One of the studies included in the review found that more than a quarter of people hospitalized with monkeypox in Nigeria, where the virus is endemic, suffered from anxiety or depression that required counselling. Researchers were unable to determine how common mental health symptoms may be due to differences in how the studies were conducted, but many reports in the review suggest that up to half people with monkeypox may experience some type of psychological or neurological problem. most often a headache.
Scientists are still trying to figure out why some people with monkeypox experience these side effects – and what kinds of factors influence a person’s risk – but they suspect some symptoms may stem from intense inflammation, a psychological response to disease or, perhaps, the ability of the virus to directly infect the central nervous system; in some cases it may be a mixture of all three, but further research is needed to be sure.
Viral infections are known to trigger an influx of inflammation throughout the body, including the brain, which can trigger new psychological symptoms or a flare-up of an underlying mental health condition, according to Daniel Pastula, MD, associate professor of neurology. , Medicine, and Epidemiology at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. In general, the body does not deal well with inflammation, whatever the cause, and the central nervous system seems to be particularly vulnerable. Think about every time you’ve been sick and felt a little crazy: “It’s just that inflammatory soup in the body that your brain doesn’t like,” said Dr Pastula, who recently published a study on the neuro-invasive potential of monkeypox, at SELF.
Another possible, and probably more likely, explanation: the stigma associated with monkeypox, the stress of having a painful and potentially disfiguring rash, and the two to four months of social isolation that is often required during illness can, understandably, cause immense anxiety and depression, says Dr. Badenoch.
Bottom Line: Neurological complications are a possible risk if you contract monkeypox, but these effects are incredibly rare from what experts know so far. That said, if you are infected, your mental health is more likely to suffer as your body tries to recover from the virus. So do your best to follow the CDC’s monkeypox prevention advice to reduce your risk of getting infected, get vaccinated if you’re eligible, and try to take it easy if you get sick.