NEW YORK – Global health officials have sounded the alarm about a rise in cases of monkeypox in Europe and elsewhere, the viral infection most common in West and Central Africa.
As of Saturday, 92 confirmed and 28 suspected cases of monkeypox have been reported from 12 member countries that are not endemic for the virus, according to the World Health Organization.
The UN agency said it expects to identify more monkeypox cases as it expands surveillance in countries where the disease is not usually found, and will provide more guidance and recommendations in the coming days for countries on how to mitigate the spread of monkeypox.
The following is what is known about the current outbreak and the relative risks of monkeypox:
How dangerous is it?
A US public health official told reporters at a news briefing Friday that the risks to the general public are low at this time.
Monkeypox is a virus that can cause symptoms including fever and aches and present with a characteristic bumpy rash.
It is related to smallpox, but is usually milder, especially the West African strain of the virus identified in an American case, which has a mortality rate of about 1%. Most people recover fully within two to four weeks, the official said.
The virus is not transmitted as easily as the SARS-CoV-2 virus that stimulated the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Experts believe that the current outbreak of monkeypox is spread through the close, intimate skin of a person with an active rash. Experts said that would make it easier to contain its spread once the infection was identified.
Covid is spread through the respiratory system and is highly contagious. “This does not appear to be the case with monkeypox,” said Dr. Martin Hirsch of Massachusetts General Hospital.
“What appears to be happening now is that it has reached the population as a sexual form, as a genital form, and is spreading like an STD, amplifying its transmission around the world,” WHO official David Heyman, an infectious disease specialist, told Reuters.
What do health experts care about?
According to the World Health Organization, the recent outbreaks reported so far are atypical, as they occur in countries where the virus is not circulating regularly. Scientists are seeking to understand the origin of the current cases and whether anything related to the virus has changed.
Most of the cases reported to date have been detected in the United Kingdom, Spain and Portugal. There have also been cases in Canada and Australia, and one case of monkeypox has been confirmed in Boston, where public health officials have said more cases are likely to emerge in the United States.
WHO officials have expressed concern that more infections could emerge as people gather for festivals, parties and holidays over the coming summer months in Europe and elsewhere.
How can people be protected from infection?
The United Kingdom has begun vaccinating 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 (SNS) to vaccinate the entire US population.
There are antiviral drugs for smallpox that can also be used to treat monkeypox under certain conditions, a spokesperson for the US Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement.
More broadly, health officials say people should avoid close personal contact with someone who has a rash or is otherwise ill. People who suspect they have monkeypox should isolate them and seek medical attention.
What may be behind the thorn in the cases?
Viruses are not something new and expected,” said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist with the Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Organization of the University of Saskatchewan in Canada.
Rasmussen said a number of factors, including increased global travel as well as climate change, have precipitated the emergence and spread of viruses. She said the world is also on greater alert for any new outbreak of any kind in the wake of the COVID pandemic.
(Reporting by Michael Erman Additional reporting by Jennifer Rigby and Natalie Grover in London; Editing by Michael Gershberg, Bill Bercrot and Frances Kerry)