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Should we be worried about rapidly spreading monkeypox outbreak ?

Until this year, the viral disease has rarely spread outside Africa

The risk of monkeypox is moderate globally, except in Europe, where the WHO has deemed the risk as high. Stock image.
The risk of monkeypox is moderate globally, except in Europe, where the WHO has deemed the risk as high. Stock image.
Image: 123RF/katmoy

The rapidly spreading monkeypox outbreak constitutes a global health emergency, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) highest alert level, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Saturday.

First identified in monkeys, the virus is transmitted chiefly through close contact with an infected person. Until this year, the viral disease has rarely spread outside Africa, where it is endemic.

However, reports of a handful of cases in the UK in early May signalled the outbreak had moved into Europe.

Cases have since ballooned to more than 16,000 in 75 countries. Five deaths, all in Africa, have been reported to date. 

HOW DANGEROUS IS IT?

Monkeypox is a virus that typically causes mild symptoms including fever, aches and pus-filled skin lesions. People tend to recover within two to four weeks, according to the WHO.

Anyone can spread the virus, but the current outbreak outside Africa is concentrated almost exclusively among men who have sex with men.

Monkeypox spreads primarily via intimate skin-to-skin contact, usually from someone who has an active rash, and via contact with contaminated clothes or bedding. It is not as easily transmitted as the SARS-CoV-2 virus that spurred the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Covid-19 is spread by the respiratory route and is highly infectious. This doesn’t appear to be the case with monkeypox,” said Dr Martin Hirsch of Massachusetts General Hospital in the US.

The risk of monkeypox is moderate globally, except in Europe, where the WHO has deemed the risk as high.

WHY IS IT AN EMERGENCY?

Health officials in several countries had urged the WHO to label monkeypox a public health emergency of international concern due to the quick escalation of cases and concerns it may become endemic in more countries.

The emergency declaration aims to spur global action and collaboration on everything from testing to the production and distribution of vaccines and treatments.

The fatality rate in preceding monkeypox outbreaks in Africa of the strain now spreading has been about 1%, but this outbreak appears to be less lethal in the non-endemic countries, many of which have stronger healthcare infrastructure.

Scientists are trying to determine what caused the initial spate of cases and whether anything about the virus has changed. Increased global travel as well as climate change have generally accelerated the emergence and spread of viruses, experts said.

Infectious disease experts said years of financial neglect has left sexual health clinics — which are on the frontline of the current monkeypox response — ill-prepared to curb further spread.

PROTECTIVE MEASURES

Health officials said people should avoid close personal contact with someone who has an illness presenting with a distinctive rash or who is otherwise unwell. People who suspect they have monkeypox should isolate and seek medical care.

Health officials have been offering monkeypox vaccines to high-risk individuals and those who have recently been in close contact with an infected person.

An older vaccine, made by Emergent Biosolutions, is called ACAM2000 but its uptake has been limited due to a severe side-effect warning.

Danish company Bavarian Nordic said it can produce 30-million doses of its vaccines, including the monkeypox vaccine, each year, and has tapped a US-based contract manufacturer to increase monkeypox vaccine capacity.

TREATMENT

Monkeypox symptoms often resolve on their own within weeks. Patients may receive extra fluids and additional treatment for secondary bacterial infections.

An antiviral agent called tecovirimat, which branded as TPOXX and made by SIGA Technologies,  has US and EU approval for smallpox, while its European approval includes monkeypox and cowpox. 

Reuters


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