The World Health Organization will be convening an emergency meeting over a monkeypox outbreak in Europe and North America in view of rising cases, according to media reports. The agenda of the meeting is to discuss virus transmission, as the disease is showing high prevalence in men who are gay, bisexual or have sex with men.
The global health body will also be discussing the vaccine situation in this scenario, Sputnik News Agency cited The Telegraph on Friday. According to the WHO, while there is no specific vaccine for monkeypox, data shows that vaccines used to eradicate smallpox are up to 85 per cent effective against monkeypox.
Europe has now reported more than 100 cases of monkeypox, which is a viral infection more common to west and central Africa. German officials described the outbreak as the largest ever in the region.
Cases have now been confirmed in countries including the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Canada and the United States while France, Germany, Belgium and Australia confirmed their first cases of monkeypox on Friday.
The WHO’s lead on emergency response, Dr Ibrahima Soce Fall, said this week that there were still so many “unknowns in terms of the dynamics of virus transmission, the clinical features (and) the epidemiology of the disease”.
British health officials are exploring whether the disease is being sexually transmitted. Health officials said in most cases, the men were gay, bisexual, or had sex with men.
In Spain and Portugal, too, cases have been reported in young men who mostly had sex with other men. Health officials said those cases were only picked up when the men turned up with lesions at sexual health clinics.
Experts, however, have stressed they do not know if the disease is being spread through sex, or other close contact related to sex.
What is monkeypox?
First identified in monkeys, the disease typically spreads through close contact and has rarely spread outside Africa. Hence, this series of cases has triggered concern. Scientists, however, do not expect the outbreak to evolve into a pandemic like Covid-19 as the virus does not spread as easily as the novel coronavirus.
Monkeypox usually triggers a mild viral illness, characterised by fever as well as a distinctive bumpy rash. “With several confirmed cases in the United Kingdom, Spain and Portugal, this is the largest and most widespread outbreak of monkeypox ever seen in Europe,” said Germany’s armed forces’ medical service.
Fabian Leendertz, from the Robert Koch Institute, described the outbreak as an epidemic. “However, it is very unlikely that this epidemic will last long. The cases can be well isolated via contact tracing and there are also drugs and effective vaccines that can be used if necessary,” he said.
African scientists baffled
The unusual spread of the disease has also left African scientists baffled. Some who have monitored numerous outbreaks in Africa said they had not previously seen cases of the smallpox-related disease among those not linked to central and West Africa.
But, they said, in the last week, Britain, Spain, Portugal, Italy, United States, Sweden and Canada had all reported infections. They added that most of the cases had been detected in young men who had not previously travelled to Africa.
“I’m stunned by this. Every day I wake up and there are more countries infected,” said Oyewale Tomori, a virologist who formerly headed the Nigerian Academy of Science and who sits on several WHO advisory boards. “This is not the kind of spread we’ve seen in West Africa, so there may be something new happening in the West,” he said.
According to Tomori, outbreaks in Nigeria, which reports about 3,000 cases per year, are usually in rural areas where people have close contact with infected rats and squirrels. He hoped the appearance of monkeypox across Europe and other western countries would further scientific understanding of the disease.
Commenting on sexual contact as means of virus transmission, Tomori said, “This is not something we’ve seen in Nigeria.” He said viruses that had not initially been known to transmit via sex, like Ebola, were later proven to do so after bigger epidemics showed different patterns of spread. The same could be true of monkeypox, he added.
“We would have to go back through our records to see if this might have happened, like between a husband and wife,” he said.
Scientists said while it is possible the outbreak’s first patient caught the disease while in Africa, what is happening now is exceptional.
(With agency inputs)