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St. Louis County to oversee regional distribution of monkeypox vaccine

Rici Hoffarth | St. Louis Public Radio
Monkeypox has spread disproportionately among men who have sex with men, but anyone can catch it. It is not spreading widely in St. Louis, and health officials hope to avoid a major outbreak.

The St. Louis County Department of Public Health announced Thursday that it will coordinate distribution of the monkeypox vaccine in St. Louis, Jefferson and St. Charles counties, as well as in St. Louis—but there are few doses to go around.

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services has so far allocated 1,900 vials of vaccine to cover eastern Missouri. A change in guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued this week means the supply could cover the two-dose vaccine regime for up to a few thousand people.

“The demand vastly outpaces the supply,” said Nebu Kolenchery, director of infectious disease response for St. Louis County. “The number of vaccines allotted to Missouri are quite limited. And so our vaccination strategy is to focus on the folks who are of the highest risk in order to contain this disease.”

Regional coordination of vaccines will help direct the limited supply to the people who most need it, said Suzanne Alexander, bureau chief for communicable disease in St. Louis.

“Because of the shortage of vaccines at the national level, our state has had to come up with a triage process,” said Alexander, who is overseeing the city’s response to monkeypox. “As the situation changes, we will be excited and happy to get more vaccines into more arms.”

Monkeybox spreads through skin-to-skin contact, sharing bedding and clothing or prolonged exposure to an infected person.

So far, the virus has spread disproportionately among men who have sex with men, but anyone can catch it. People who have had close contact with infected individuals are considered to be at high risk. So too are people who have recently had group sex, anonymous sex or engaged in sex work.

Monkeypox can cause a fever and painful rash but is rarely fatal.

Fewer than 15 monkeypox cases had been reported in St. Louis and St. Louis County as of Thursday, but the virus is spreading faster in other urban centers. The CDC reports over 10,3000 monkeypox cases nationally, including more than 700 in Illinois.

More than 2,000 monkeypox cases have been confirmed in New York and 600 in Chicago.

“They have substantial outbreaks,” Kolenchery said. “That's the scenario we want to avoid here. And the best way to do that is to limit risky behavior, educate yourself about the virus and then when you are eligible, please get vaccinated.”

Health officials urge people at high risk to visit the St. Louis County health department’s websiteto fill out a survey and see if they are eligible for the vaccine.

Monkeypox is caused by a virus similar to the smallpox virus. Vaccines developed to protect against smallpox can protect people from monkeypox.

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.