Australia’s top doctor steps in as monkeypox cases spark national response

Australia’s top doctor stepped in after confirmation of the inevitable – monkeypox has reached our shores.

On Friday, acting chief medical officer Dr Sonya Bennett said the Australian government was “closely monitoring developments regarding monkeypox virus cases internationally”.

In the video above: How contagious is monkeypox?

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“The National Incident Center has been activated to support the national response,” she said.

“The Communicable Diseases Network Australia (CDNA) and the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) have met and will continue to meet to monitor the situation.”

Australia has so far recorded two cases – a man in his 40s in New South Wales and another man in his thirties in Victoria. Both are in isolation – one at home and the other at the Alfred in stable condition.

Australia, Italy, Sweden, the UK, Spain, Portugal and the US are dealing with outbreaks of monkeypox. Credit: PA

Both are return travellers, with one traveling from the UK and the other across Europe.

Contact tracing has also begun, with all of their close contacts being asked to monitor for symptoms and isolate them if they develop them.

As a precaution, passengers seated near one of the men on board flight EY10 from London to Abu Dhabi on May 14 and flight EY462 from Abu Dhabi to Melbourne, which landed at 5:45 a.m. on May 16, were requested to do the same.

What we know

Monkeypox, also known as MPX/MPXV, is a rare viral zoonotic disease that occurs mainly in tropical rainforest areas of Central and West Africa and is sometimes exported to other regions.

It is considered endemic in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where it was first discovered in humans in 1970.

The virus is primarily transmitted to humans by infected animals, such as primates or rodents, however, human-to-human transmission can occur through respiratory droplets, close bodily contact with broken skin, or sharing laundry or objects contaminated.

In recent weeks, cases have been reported in the UK, Spain, Portugal, France, the Canary Islands, the US and Canada. The cases are thought to have spread through local transmission, given that the majority have not traveled to areas where the virus is endemic.

The virus typically begins with flu-like symptoms, such as fever, headache, muscle aches and exhaustion, before causing a distinctive blistering rash that can occur on any part of the body, including the face, and swollen lymph nodes.

A skin lesion caused by the monkeypox virus is shown on the hand of a child infected with the virus two weeks after being bitten by a prairie dog in Wisconsin in this May 27, 2003 file photo. Federal health officials investigating on an outbreak of monkeypox that apparently spread from prairie dogs to residents of three Midwestern states said Monday, June 9, 2003 that the number of possible cases had risen to at least 33. (AP Photo/Marshfield Clinic)
A skin lesion caused by the monkeypox virus is shown on the hand of a child infected with the virus two weeks after being bitten by a prairie dog in Wisconsin in this May 27, 2003 file photo. Federal health officials investigating on an outbreak of monkeypox that apparently spread from prairie dogs to residents of three Midwestern states said Monday, June 9, 2003 that the number of possible cases had risen to at least 33. (AP Photo/Marshfield Clinic) Credit: MARAIS CLINIC/PA

Symptoms usually last two to four weeks, however, severe cases can occur, including death in rare cases.

Transmission can also occur between sex partners through direct intimate contact during sex, with infectious skin lesions being the likely mode of transmission.

This prompted New South Wales-based sexual health organization ACON to urge gay, bisexual and men who have sex with men to remain vigilant and follow health advice.

“It’s important for us to remember that viruses do not discriminate,” ACON CEO Nicholas Parkhill said Friday, “we particularly urge those who have attended dance parties, sex parties or saunas in Europe to be vigilant for compatible symptoms.”

Bennett said that while a number of recently identified cases have self-identified as gay, bisexual or other men who have sex with men, “monkey pox has not been described as a sexually transmitted disease.”

There is some good news.

Bennett said significant close contact with an infected person showing symptoms was usually required for transmission to occur – so in theory, with good community awareness, transmission is likely to be localized, easily identified and able to be contained.

Professor Allen Cheng, an infectious disease physician with Alfred Health, agreed that while there “are always emerging infections, on the scale of emerging infections – it’s not COVID”.

‘It’s not as communicable, we need a public health response and it needs to be proportionate, but beyond contact tracing and public health measures it doesn’t really have any implications for the rest of us at this point. ”

Monkey pox treatments

Although there is currently no specific treatment available for monkeypox infection, outbreaks can be controlled, Bennett said.

“Because monkeypox is similar to smallpox, the smallpox vaccine can also protect people against monkeypox.

“It is also thought that antiviral treatments for smallpox may also be effective in treating monkeypox.”

Australian travelers returning to or visiting countries where cases have been identified are urged to be aware of signs of infection and seek medical advice if they believe they may be at risk.

In this graphic from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one of the symptoms of the monkeypox virus is seen on a patient's hand.
In this graphic from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one of the symptoms of the monkeypox virus is seen on a patient’s hand. Credit: Getty Images/Getty Images

People who have recently returned from overseas or had contact with a case in Australia and develop any of these symptoms should seek medical attention immediately.

“States and territories are alerting clinicians to be on the lookout for potential cases and to urgently report any cases to the appropriate authorities in their state and territory so that a public health response can be activated” , Bennett added.

“Post-exposure prophylaxis can be effective in preventing or modifying contact with disease if administered soon after exposure.

“The Australian Government will continue to monitor the situation and provide regular updates.”

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