The World Health Organization (WHO) is holding an emergency meeting to discuss the recent outbreak of monkeypox, a viral infection more common in West and Central Africa, after more than 100 cases were confirmed or suspected in Europe.
- Monkeypox is usually a mild viral illness, with symptoms of fever as well as a characteristic bumpy rash
- Europe’s WHO chief says he fears infections are accelerating in the region
- British authorities say they have offered a smallpox vaccine to some healthcare workers
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In what Germany has described as the largest outbreak ever seen in Europe, cases of monkeypox have been reported in at least nine countries – Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom – as well as in the United States. , Canada and Australia.
Spain reported 24 new cases on Friday, mostly in the Madrid region, where the regional government closed a sauna linked to the majority of infections.
A hospital in Israel was treating a man in his 30s who has symptoms consistent with the disease after his recent arrival from Western Europe.
First identified in monkeys, the disease is usually spread through close contact and has rarely spread outside of Africa, so this series of cases has raised concerns.
However, scientists do not expect the outbreak to develop into a pandemic like COVID-19, given that the virus does not spread as easily as SARS-CoV-2.
Monkeypox is usually a mild viral illness, characterized by symptoms of fever as well as a characteristic bumpy rash of blisters that may burst, leaving craters.
“This is the largest and most widespread outbreak of monkeypox ever seen in Europe,” said the medical service of the German armed forces, which detected its first case in the country on Friday.
The WHO committee meeting to discuss the matter is its Strategic and Technical Advisory Group on Infectious Hazards with Pandemic and Epidemic Potential (STAG-IH), which advises on infection risks that could pose a threat for global health.
It would not be responsible for deciding whether the outbreak should be declared a public health emergency of international concern, the WHO’s highest form of alert currently applied to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There appears to be a low risk to the general public at this time,” a senior US administration official said.
Monkeypox outbreaks likely won’t last long, experts say
Fabian Leendertz of the Robert Koch Institute described outbreaks as an epidemic.
“However, this outbreak is very unlikely to last for long. Cases can be isolated well through contact tracing and there are also effective drugs and vaccines that can be used if needed,” he said.
Still, the European head of the WHO said he fears infections could accelerate in the region as people gather for parties and festivals over the summer months.
There is no specific vaccine against monkeypox, but data shows that vaccines used to eradicate smallpox are up to 85% effective against monkeypox, according to the WHO.
British authorities said they have offered a smallpox vaccine to some healthcare workers and others who may have been exposed to monkeypox.
Since 1970, cases of monkeypox have been reported in 11 African countries.
Nigeria has been experiencing a major ongoing outbreak since 2017. So far this year, there have been 46 suspected cases, 15 of which have since been confirmed, according to the WHO.
The first European case was confirmed on May 7 in an individual who had returned to England from Nigeria.
Since then, more than 100 cases have been confirmed outside Africa, according to a tracker maintained by an academic at the University of Oxford.
Many cases are unrelated to travel to the mainland.
As a result, the cause of this outbreak is unclear, although health authorities have said there is potentially some degree of community spread.
It is not known whether monkeypox has become sexually transmitted
The WHO said the first cases were unusual for three reasons:
- all but one have no relevant travel history to areas where monkeypox is endemic
- most are detected by sexual health services and among men who have sex with men
- the wide geographic distribution across Europe and beyond suggests transmission may have been going on for some time.
In Britain, where 20 cases have now been confirmed, the UK Health Security Agency said recent cases in the country have mainly been in men who have identified as gay, bisexual or who have sex with men.
Portugal detected nine more cases on Friday, bringing its total to 23.
The previous tally of 14 cases had all been detected at sexual health clinics and involved men between the ages of 20 and 40 who identified as gay, bisexual or who have sex with men.
It was too early to say whether the illness turned into a sexually transmitted disease, said Alessio D’Amato, health commissioner for Italy’s Lazio region.
Three cases have been reported so far in his country.
“The idea that there is some sort of sexual transmission in there, I think, is a bit of a stretch,” said Stuart Neil, professor of virology at Kings College London.
Scientists are sequencing the virus from different cases to see if they are linked, the WHO said.
The agency is expected to provide an update soon.
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