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Veterinarian who got monkeypox years ago describes lesions and flu-like symptoms

Until the current monkeypox outbreak, the Western Hemisphere's biggest was in 2003, when the U.S. identified 47 cases. 

A veterinarian who contracted monkeypox during a U.S. outbreak in 2003 described the "scary" ordeal of becoming suddenly ill before authorities knew what was happening.

Dr. Kurt Zaeske, who is now retired in Wisconsin, said he developed flu-like symptoms and lesions after coming into contact with a monkeypox-infected prairie dog through a client. Neither knew what had made the animal sick.

"My fear was, 'Oh my gosh, is this an exotic disease? I’ve got to figure out what it is,'" Zaeske said.

His symptoms were "very much like the flu,” Zaeske recalled — he was feverish, dizzy, nauseated and fatigued and had a headache. Then he started developing small lesions on his body, including "one significant blister that developed on my thumb, and that became quite painful."

A current monkeypox outbreak has led the disease to be identified in 15 European countries, along with the U.S., Canada, United Arab Emirates, Australia and Israel. The total case count outside of Africa, where the virus is typically found, has exceeded 200.

Before this, the biggest monkeypox outbreak to affect the Western Hemisphere was in 2003, when the U.S. identified 47 cases. 

That's when Zaeske became sick. The client with the prairie dog was an exotic animal breeder who also sold animals to pet stores, Zaeske said. The breeder told him that he'd received a shipment of prairie dogs but some had become sick and died. It turned out that the prairie dogs had at some point been exposed to rodents that spread the virus.

Image: Dr. Kurt Zaeske.
Dr. Kurt Zaeske.COurtesy Dr. Kurt Zaeske

Zaeske said he prescribed an antibiotic for the animals, but the breeder soon called him back to tell him that he and his sister were feeling sick themselves. 

Zaeske said he contacted a state lab in order to test samples from the prairie dogs. After handling and euthanizing one of them for that purpose, he began to feel ill himself.

"Suddenly, I started not feeling well. And then, of course, I was very concerned because at that time, we didn’t know what it was," he said.

"My biggest fear was that I was going to lose my thumb and not be able to practice anymore," he added, referring to the lesion.

Zaeske was given antibiotics and soon recovered, he said, though pain from the lesion on his thumb lasted longer. Nobody else in his family or his staff became sick. 

Eventually, investigators determined the infected prairie dogs had given rise to a monkeypox outbreak in people. All of the U.S. patients had at some point been in contact with the prairie dogs, and none died. 

Zaeske said the ordeal was "scary initially, but also fascinating" to be part of as a member of the medical profession.

Because of how much more interconnected the world has become since 2003, he added, "I think we’re probably three to four degrees of separation from a serious exotic disease."

"I think you can see it very clearly — that any type of exotic disease can break out now and, you know, get worldwide," he said.

In this new outbreak, Zaeske said, the world is "fortunate" that this strain of monkeypox "tends to not be fatal."

Around 1 percent of people who get this type of monkeypox have died in the past, according to the World Health Organization, compared to up to 10 percent of people who've contracted a different lineage of the virus.

The U.S. has thus far confirmed two monkeypox cases, one in Massachusetts and one in New York. On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it was investigating four suspected cases: one in New York City, one in Florida and two in Utah. Those confirmed and suspected cases so far are all in men and related to travel, CDC officials said.

Health departments in California, Florida and Washington have also each announced an additional presumptive case.

Although more cases are expected to be confirmed, officials noted that there is no evidence that the virus is spreading widely in the country and added that the U.S. has a stockpile of vaccines available for close contacts of the infected patients.

Zaeske said that while the monkeypox outbreak is not nearly as serious as the pandemic, "I think this is a wake-up call to the world to say we may be starting to see more of these. And we have to be a lot more vigilant about monitoring."