Massachusetts health authorities said Wednesday that they confirmed a case of a rare and sometimes serious viral illness called monkeypox — the first infection identified in the United States this year amid a rash of cases outside the disease’s typical territory.

Monkeypox, which can be passed to animals and humans, is usually found in Central and West Africa. But health authorities in Europe have confirmed more than a dozen cases this month and are investigating more. The two latest infections confirmed in the United Kingdom “have no travel links” to a place where monkeypox is regularly found, officials said, suggesting the virus may be spreading through the community.

Scientists are trying to answer questions about the outbreak of a disease not known to spread easily between humans. The fact that cases are emerging in several countries – with signs of “sustained” spread in people — is striking, said Aris Katzourakis, a professor of evolution and genomics at the University of Oxford.

“So it’s either a lot of bad luck or something quite unusual happening here,” Katzourakis said.

What is monkeypox?

Monkeypox is named for the animals in which it was discovered. The disease cropped up in 1958 among monkeys kept for research, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — more than a decade before a human case was identified in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Mass vaccination against smallpox “presumably” curbed monkeypox infections for a time among humans, researchers wrote in a 2005 article. But cases resurged, thanks in part to a lack of immunity in later generations, they say. More than 450 cases have been reported in Nigeria since 2017, according to the CDC.

Monkeypox infections typically last two to four weeks, the CDC says, and begin with flu-like symptoms and swelling of the lymph nodes. Eventually fluid-filled blisters — or “pox” — spread across the skin.

The disease can spread through contact with animals, infected people and materials used by infected people, health authorities say. Examples listed by the CDC include contact with bodily fluids, contact with monkeypox sores and infection through “respiratory droplets” in a “close setting” such as a shared household.

Monkeypox can be deadly, but two major strains of the virus pose different risks. About 1 in 10 people infected with a Congo Basin strain have been found to die, according to the World Health Organization, while a West African strain appeared to be fatal for about 1 in 100 people infected.

That milder strain is the one infecting people who were hospitalized in the United Kingdom, health authorities said. It is not clear what strain the Massachusetts patient contracted.

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