A Texas resident has died with monkeypox, local health officials reported Tuesday—seemingly the first death linked to the emerging viral disease ever documented in the U.S. The person reportedly had preexisting health issues, and officials are still investigating the extent to which the infection may have contributed to their death.
Monkeypox, a relative of the extinct smallpox virus, has recently spread far beyond the few areas of Africa where it was known to be endemic. There have been more than 48,000 monkeypox cases worldwide in 2022 so far, including over 18,000 in the U.S. alone. Previously transmitted mostly from animals to humans, the current global epidemic has seen sustained human-to-human transmission of the virus, with a majority of cases linked to prolonged close contact during sex (some cases may be spreading through sex directly, via infected semen or other bodily fluids). Outbreaks have been concentrated among gay and bisexual men who have had multiple recent sexual partners, but the virus can spread through other kinds of prolonged close contact between people and even pets.
The most severe form of the virus can kill up to 10% of victims, but the strains that have spread across the globe this year have so far belonged to less virulent groups, or clades, of the virus. As a result, monkeypox deaths during the epidemic have been rare to date, but not unheard of. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been six monkeypox-related deaths documented worldwide in areas where the virus was previously not found, prior to this latest report.
The Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) confirmed the death Tuesday afternoon. Officials have so far only disclosed that the victim was an adult resident living in Harris County and that they were severely immunocompromised—which can be a risk factor for life-threatening complications from many infections, including monkeypox.
“Monkeypox is a serious disease, particularly for those with weakened immune systems,” said John Hellerstedt, DSHS Commissioner, in a statement released by the agency. “We continue to urge people to seek treatment if they have been exposed to monkeypox or have symptoms consistent with the disease.”
Officials say that they’re actively investigating the death and the role that monkeypox could have played in it. While there was a relatively large outbreak of monkeypox in the U.S. in 2003, one ultimately traced back to infected prairie dogs sold as pets, no people died from it. So if this death is confirmed to be caused at least partially by the infection, it would be the first reported in the U.S.
Known severe complications of monkeypox include secondary infections, pneumonia, encephalitis, and sepsis. And even during the current outbreak, about 10% of patients have needed hospitalization to help manage the painful symptoms it can cause.