The recent outbreak of monkeypox has been described by health experts as a “highly unusual” event. Why’s it happening now?
“Monkeypox has now been detected in three more countries bringing the total to 15 as scientists say they are still unsure what is causing the outbreak.”BBC News
It’s been described by experts as a “random” and “highly unusual” event.
And it’s taken global authorities by surprise.
“We know that there’s been, you know, a period of restrictions across Europe and we don’t know where this infection has come from and how it’s come into Europe.”BBC News
As the world begins to recover from the shock of the Covid-19 pandemic, health agencies are reporting an outbreak of monkeypox in countries where it’s not normally detected.
“We are afraid that there will be a spread in the community but currently it is very hard to assess this risk. We think that if we put in place the right measure now, we probably can contain this easily.”Dr Sylvie Briand, World Health Organisation
That’s Dr Sylvie Briand.
She’s director of epidemic and pandemic preparedness at the WHO.
And while Dr Sylvie Briand has been quick to reassure the public…
“This is not a disease the general public should be worried of, it’s not like Covid or other diseases that spread fast.”Dr Sylvie Briand, World Health Organisation
She’s also warned that the cases we’re seeing could be just the “tip of the iceberg”…
“We know that this number may increase in the coming days because we are still at the very very beginning of this event.”Dr Sylvie Briand, World Health Organisation
The virus is already endemic in a number of countries in western and central Africa.
But the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, the United Arab Emirates, and several other European countries have all now reported monkeypox cases too.
All of these countries are outside where the virus normally circulates which suggests it’s been spreading for some time.
“What is important is just to see that this event is unusual. We usually, we have no cases or very sporadic cases that are exported to the non-endemic countries but now we have more and more cases.”Dr Sylvie Briand, World Health Organisation
So, if it’s so unusual, why is it happening now?
Researchers first detected monkeypox in laboratory monkeys in 1958.
It comes from the same family as smallpox and cowpox and is thought to transmit to people from wild animals such as rodents, or from other infected people through close contact with their lesions, bodily fluids and respiratory droplets during prolonged face-to-face contact.
“There are two strains endemic to parts of Africa. The central African subtype can cause severe symptoms including large lesions on the skin with a fatality rate of around 10 per cent. The west African version causing the current outbreak results in milder symptoms including a rash that blisters and scabs over a bit like chicken pox.”Sky News
In a typical year, a few thousand cases occur in western and central Africa. Any cases detected outside that region tend to be associated with travel there or, from contact with infected animals.
When the UK first reported a confirmed monkeypox case on the 7th of May it was linked with travel to Nigeria.
But then two more cases were identified in the UK a week later, both of whom lived in the same household but had no travel history to countries where it’s endemic, so health agencies began to ask more questions.
“We have many unknowns about this disease because we don’t know if this unusual situation is down to a virus change. It doesn’t seem so because the first sequencing of the virus shows that the strain is not different from the strain we can find in endemic countries and it’s probably more due to a change in human behaviour”Dr Sylvie Briand, World Health Organisation
Many of those affected by the recent outbreak of monkeypox in the UK are gay and bisexual young men.
Experts are clear that this is not a sexually-transmitted infection and it doesn’t spread faster in that community.
It just so happens that it seems to have been introduced into a network of gay or bisexual young men, which is why it’s spreading amongst those people.
But scientists are confident we have the tools to tackle monkeypox. Here’s microbiologist Professor Paul Hunter, speaking to ITV News…
“A lot of the control measures are going to be around identifying cases early, identifying their contacts, and then what we call ring vaccination where you vaccinate as many of their contacts as you possibly can.”Professor Paul Hunter speaking to ITV News
In response to the outbreak, the UK government has ordered more than 20,000 extra doses of Imvanex, a smallpox vaccine that hasn’t really been used here since the early 1970s.
And having learnt lessons from Covid, the UK Health Security Agency has now urged people who have monkeypox or its symptoms to avoid close contact, including sex, until their lesions have healed and any scabs have dried off.
And, although it isn’t thought to be sexually transmitted, as a precaution, cases are advised to use condoms for eight weeks after infection.
“We don’t recommend travel bans or restrictions, and we need to continue to communicate what we know, what’s being done, and really reassure the public.”Dr Sylvie Briand, World Health Organisation
Although there are still many unknowns about this outbreak, Dr Sylvie Briand from the WHO is clear that the priority is stopping the spread of the virus and avoiding certain communities being stigmatised.
Today’s story was written and produced by Imy Harper.
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