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EXPLAINER: How concerned should we be about monkeypox?

File photo: The UK has begun to inoculate health-care workers who may be at risk while caring for patients with the smallpox vaccine. Picture: APF

File photo: The UK has begun to inoculate health-care workers who may be at risk while caring for patients with the smallpox vaccine. Picture: APF

Published May 23, 2022

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By Michael Erman

New York: Global health officials have sounded the alarm over rising cases of monkeypox in Europe and elsewhere. The viral infection is more common to west and central Africa.

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As of Saturday, 92 confirmed cases and 28 suspected cases of monkeypox have been reported from 12 member states that are not endemic for the virus, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The UN agency said it expected to identify more cases of monkeypox as it expanded surveillance in countries where the disease was not typically found, and would provide further guidance and recommendations in the coming days for countries on how to mitigate the spread of monkeypox.

What is known about the outbreak and relative risk of monkeypox:

HOW DANGEROUS IS IT?

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The risk to the general public was low at this time, a US public health official told reporters at a briefing on Friday.

Monkeypox is a virus that can cause symptoms including fever, aches and presents with a distinctive bumpy rash.

It is related to smallpox, but is usually milder, particularly the West African strain of the virus that was identified in a US case, which has a fatality rate of around 1%.

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Most people fully recovered in two to four weeks, the official said.

The virus is not as easily transmitted as the Sars-CoV-2 virus that spurred the global Covid-19 pandemic.

Experts believe the monkeypox outbreak is being spread through close, intimate skin-on-skin contact with someone who has an active rash. That should make its spread easier to contain once infections were identified, experts said.

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"Covid is spread by respiratory route and is highly infectious. This doesn't appear to be the case with the monkeypox," said Dr. Martin Hirsch of Massachusetts General Hospital.

"What seems to be happening now is that it has got into the population as a sexual form, as a genital form, and is being spread as are sexually transmitted infections, which has amplified its transmission around the world," WHO official David Heymann, an infectious disease specialist, said.

WHAT HAS HEALTH EXPERTS CONCERNED?

The recent outbreaks reported are atypical, according to the WHO, as they are occurring in countries where the virus does not regularly circulate. Scientists are seeking to understand the origin of the current cases and whether anything about the virus has changed.

Most of the cases reported have been detected in the UK, Spain and Portugal. There have also been cases in Canada and Australia, and a single case of monkeypox was confirmed in Boston, with public health officials saying more cases are likely to turn up in the United States.

WHO officials have expressed concern that more infections could arise as people gathered for festivals, parties and holidays during the coming summer months in Europe and elsewhere.

HOW CAN PEOPLE PROTECT AGAINST INFECTION?

The UK has begun to inoculate health-care workers who may be at risk while caring for patients with the smallpox vaccine, which can also protect against monkeypox.

The US government says it has enough smallpox vaccine stored in its Strategic National Stockpile to vaccinate the entire US population.

There were antiviral drugs for smallpox that could also be used to treat monkeypox under certain circumstances, a spokesperson for the US Department of Health and Human Services said.

More broadly, health officials say that people should avoid close personal contact with someone who has a rash illness or who is otherwise unwell. People who suspect they have monkeypox should isolate and seek medical care.

WHAT MIGHT BE BEHIND THE SPIKE IN CASES?

"Viruses are nothing new and expected," said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada.

Rasmussen said several factors, including increased global travel and climate change, had accelerated the emergence and spread of viruses. The world was also more on alert to new outbreaks of any kind in the wake of the Covid pandemic, she said.

WHO expects more cases of monkeypox to emerge globally.

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