December 3, 2022

WHO convenes emergency meeting over worldwide monkeypox outbreak

Multiple cases of monkeypox in Europe, the UK, Canada and the United States have health authorities worried that the dangerous, though usually not life-threatening, disease could be spreading – Copyright AFP Olga MALTSEVA

Health authorities in Europe, the U.S., and Australia are investigating a recent outbreak of monkeypox cases, a rare viral disease typically found in Africa.

It is believed the main topics of conversation will be around how the virus is being spread, the unusually high prevalence in gay and bisexual men, and also the vaccination situation. 

In the UK, cases more than doubled on Friday, with Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, confirming the discovery of a further 11 cases, bringing the total of cases to 20. This is leading to fears that the virus is spreading through the country unchecked, reports the UK’s Telegraph.

Reuters is reporting that over 100 cases of monkeypox have been reported worldwide in countries including the United Kingdom, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, France, the United States, and Australia.

Germany on Friday reported its first case of the virus, becoming the latest European country to identify an outbreak. While some cases have been linked to travel from Africa, more recent infections are thought to have spread in the community, raising the risks of a wider outbreak.

On May 19, in Quebec, Canada, two cases were confirmed, with 20 other suspected cases are still under investigation, according to CTV News Canada.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the UK’s Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said they are investigating a range of cases including those among individuals who self-identify as men who have sex with men, and urged gay and bisexual men, in particular, to be aware of any unusual rashes or lesions, reports CNBC News.

An image of the rash seen in monkeypox.
Source – CDC, Public Domain

What is monkeypox?

Monkeypox was first discovered in 1958 when two outbreaks of a pox-like disease occurred in colonies of monkeys kept for research, hence the name ‘monkeypox.’

The first human case of monkeypox was recorded in 1970 in the Democratic Republic of Congo during a period of intensified effort to eliminate smallpox. Since then monkeypox has been reported in humans in other central and western African countries.

Transmission of monkeypox virus occurs when a person comes into contact with the virus from an animal, human, or materials contaminated with the virus. The virus enters the body through broken skin (even if not visible), the respiratory tract, or the mucous membranes (eyes, nose, or mouth). 

The CDC reported that in 2003, an outbreak of monkeypox in the U.S. came about due to a shipment of animals from Ghana to Texas. CDC laboratory testing showed that two African giant pouched rats, nine dormice, and three rope squirrels were infected with the monkeypox virus.

After importation into the United States, some of the infected animals were housed near prairie dogs at the facilities of an Illinois animal vendor. These prairie dogs were sold as pets before they developed signs of infection.

All people infected with monkeypox became ill after having contact with infected pet prairie dogs. The CDC, along with the Department of Agriculture and the FDA mobilized to prevent the further spread of the virus with the deployment of smallpox vaccine and treatments for patients, healthcare providers, veterinarians, and other animal handlers.

The good news is that there is a treatment for the monkeypox. The smallpox vaccine can prevent infection with 85% effectiveness. In 2019, a monkeypox vaccine, Jynneos, was approved for adults in the United States.