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Some Florida counties have higher risks for mpox outbreaks

Health experts are encouraging gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men to get vaccinated against mpox.
Marina Demidiuk
Health experts are encouraging gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men to get vaccinated against mpox.

The CDC estimates Hillsborough has a 52% risk of an mpox outbreak this year, while Pinellas has a 48% risk. Health officials encourage people to get vaccinated now while cases are low.

Health officials are encouraging people to be proactive about protecting themselves against mpox infection in the hopes of preventing a surge like last year. Recent federal data show several Florida counties have elevated risks for outbreaks.

Duval County has the highest risk in the nation, at 57%, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Infection. Hillsborough and Palm Beach counties both have a 52% risk of outbreaks, while Pinellas has 48% and Orange has 45%. Those all fall in the top 15 nationally.

Low immunity rates for mpox in high-risk populations, which primarily include gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men, contributed to those findings. For example, Hillsborough has an estimated immunity level of 15% and Duval has just 6%, which health experts say makes communities more vulnerable to spread.

“This analysis highlights the importance of public health programs identifying opportunities to promote vaccination before Pride-related and other events when vaccination interest might be higher, rather than vaccinating after reintroduction is identified,” wrote CDC researcher Emily Polluck in the discussion.

Mpox is a virus in the smallpox family and typically causes people it infects to develop skin rashes that can be painful or itchy. Other symptoms can include fever, aches and respiratory issues. The virus spreads through direct contact with those skin lesions, often during sex.

 Here are some examples of what an mpox rash looks like
Here are some examples of what an mpox rash looks like

The prevalence of mpox has diminished significantly since last year’s outbreak, which led to more than 30,000 cases nationally and 42 deaths, but the virus has not gone away.

“It appears that this virus is going to remain endemic in the United States and it will continue to be transmitted and, under particular conditions, will probably continue to manifest as outbreaks,” said Brad Perkins, chief medical officer at Karius, a company that provides advanced molecular testing to detect and manage infectious diseases.

Florida has reported 36 mpox cases so far this year, compared to 2,861 last year. Hillsborough has only reported a single case this year and Pinellas has reported three, compared to 229 and 162 last year respectively.

But a recent uptick in Chicago has metro areas on alert as summer travel and gatherings could fuel spread.

Health experts are encouraging gay and bisexual men in particular to get the two-dose mpox vaccine.

“Although it may not prevent every case of mpox, it’s pretty clear that it is likely providing protection against severe disease,” said Perkins, who adds people should also avoid coming into contact with people who either have what appears to be an mpox-related skin rash or a known exposure to someone who was infected.

 Here's more examples of what an mpox rash looks like.
Here's more examples of what an mpox rash looks like.

People living with HIV or who have compromised immune systems for other reasons are especially at risk for severe cases of mpox.

Floridians who meet the criteria for mpox vaccination can schedule appointments to get immunized at their county health department offices. Other health clinics in the state offer the vaccine as well, including Metro Inclusive Health, which primarily serves LGBTQ+ patients in the Tampa Bay region.

While there is no specific treatment for mpox, drugs developed to protect against smallpox are often effective.

Testing for mpox is conducted using material from a patient’s skin lesions. Karius is working with the CDC to study the effectiveness of a test it developed that can detect mpox in the blood before a rash appears.

Copyright 2023 WUSF 89.7

Stephanie Colombini joined WUSF Public Media in December 2016 as Producer of Florida Matters, WUSF’s public affairs show. She’s also a reporter for WUSF’s Health News Florida project.