OTTAWA – Canada’s top public health official said the world must build better defenses against infectious viruses as climate change and other factors increase the risk of more emerging infectious diseases in the coming years.
Dr. Theresa Tam’s comments come as Canada has now confirmed 77 cases of monkeypox, including 71 in Quebec, five in Ontario and one in Alberta.
Globally, there are at least 550 confirmed cases in 30 non-endemic countries where the virus has not normally been found. It is by far the largest spread outside West and Central Africa, where it is now endemic to at least 10 countries.
The World Health Organization did not specify where this current outbreak began, but WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Wednesday, “The sudden appearance of monkeypox in several countries at the same time indicates that there may have been undetected transmission for some time. “
Tam said cases in Canada currently include a specific group of individuals who have close and intimate sexual contact, but that could change.
“Right now, it’s not much beyond the initial risk groups, but it can happen, and we need to be prepared for that,” she said.
Public health officials said that while everyone is susceptible to contracting the virus, clusters of cases have been reported among men who have sex with men.
Tam’s deputy, Dr. Howard Ngo, said he was aware of the potential for stigma and discrimination and emphasized that the spread of the virus was not restricted to a particular group.
From a broader perspective, Tam said, Canada and the rest of the world should be better equipped when such a disease occurs.
“Emerging infectious diseases can always strike us,” she said. “And we must be as prepared as possible, which means strengthening global public health capacity.”
Improving capacity in each country is “really important,” Tam said, because with climate change and other factors, there is greater human-animal interaction, which is often how animal-borne viruses turn into human epidemics.
“I think we are going to see an increase in the numbers of these types of emerging infectious diseases, and with good capacity, not only in Canada, but globally we can help manage them and reduce their impact as much as possible,” Tam said.
The first non-endemic cases of monkeypox were confirmed in the UK in early May. The first cases were confirmed in Canada on May 19.
African scientists and doctors are weary of the sudden interest in monkeypox as it infects Western countries, which have largely ignored the virus as it spread to parts of Africa.
On Friday, Tam described it as a “neglected tropical disease.”
“We need better international cooperation and support for collective learning together globally,” she said.
Monkeypox got its name because it was first found in monkeys in a laboratory in Denmark in 1958, but in the wild it is mainly found in small rodents such as rats, squirrels, and shrews.
Exhausted by the global population two years after the COVID-19 pandemic, monkeypox is looking at the arrival of monkeypox with apprehension and trepidation, even though the virus does not spread through the air like the one that causes COVID-19.
Instead, monkeypox virus spreads primarily through close contact with the virus on humans or other objects such as bed linen. While it can be fatal, it often does not cause symptoms such as fever, headache, muscle aches, and smallpox-like lesions on the skin.
It can take one to two weeks for an infected person to develop symptoms, and Tam cautioned that although we know a lot about the behavior of monkeypox virus in countries where the virus is endemic, we know very little about how it may behave in endemic populations. They are mostly not immune to it and do not have normal levels of immunity.
A vaccine created for smallpox has also been approved for use against monkeypox, and Canada has a supply of the vaccine. Some doses have already been sent to Quebec to vaccinate close contacts of known cases, and Tam said talks with each province are underway to determine if some should be “pre-positioned” across the country.
Contact tracing has proven difficult, she said, and while there is no expectation of a large-scale public vaccination campaign against monkeypox, the current campaign may be expanded to try to end the outbreak in Canada.
This report was first published by The Canadian Press on June 3, 2022.