LONDON (AP) — Health authorities in Europe and the United States have identified a number of cases of monkeypox in recent days, mostly in young men. It is a startling epidemic that rarely appears outside of Africa.
Health officials around the world are monitoring more cases as, for the first time, the disease appears to be spreading among people who have not traveled to Africa. They stress, however, that the risk to the general population is low.
WHAT IS MONKEYPOX?
Monkeypox is a virus that comes from wild animals like rodents and primates, and sometimes jumps to humans. Most human cases have occurred in central and western Africa, where the disease is endemic.
The disease was first identified by scientists in 1958 when there were two outbreaks of a “pox-like” disease in research monkeys – hence the name monkeypox. The first known human infection dates back to 1970, in a 9-year-old boy in a remote region of Congo.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS AND HOW ARE IT TREATED?
Monkeypox belongs to the same virus family as smallpox but causes milder symptoms.
Most patients experience only fever, body aches, chills, and fatigue. People with more severe illness may develop a rash and sores on the face and hands that may spread to other parts of the body.
The incubation period is about five days to three weeks. Most people recover in about two to four weeks without needing to be hospitalized.
Monkeypox can be fatal for up to 1 in 10 people and is thought to be more serious in children.
People exposed to the virus often receive one of several smallpox vaccines, which have been shown to be effective against monkeypox. Antiviral drugs are also being developed.
On Thursday, the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control recommended that all suspected cases be isolated and high-risk contacts offered the smallpox vaccine.
HOW MANY CASES OF MONKEYPOX ARE THERE USUALLY?
The World Health Organization estimates that there are thousands of monkeypox infections in a dozen African countries each year. Most are in Congo, which reports around 6,000 cases per year, and Nigeria, with around 3,000 cases per year.
Patchy health surveillance systems mean many infected people are likely to be missed, experts say.
Isolated cases of monkeypox are sometimes spotted outside of Africa, especially in the United States and Great Britain. Cases are usually associated with travel to Africa or contact with animals from areas where the disease is more common.
In 2003, 47 people in six US states had confirmed or probable cases. They caught the virus pet prairie dogs that were housed near small mammals imported from Ghana.
WHAT IS DIFFERENT IN THESE CASES?
This is the first time that monkeypox appears to have spread among people who have not traveled to Africa. Most cases involve men who have had sex with men.
In Europe, infections have been reported in Britain, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Sweden.
Britain’s health security agency said its cases are not all linked, suggesting there are multiple chains of transmission. The infections in Portugal were detected at a sexual health clinic, where the men sought help for lesions on their genitals.
On Wednesday, US officials reported a case of monkeypox in a man who had recently traveled to Canada, where authorities are investigating suspected infections in the Montreal area.
IS MONKEYPOX TRANSMITTED THROUGH SEX?
It’s possible, but it’s not clear at the moment.
Monkeypox has not previously been documented to have been spread through sex, but it can be transmitted through close contact with infected people, their bodily fluids, and their clothing or bedding.
Michael Skinner, a virologist at Imperial College London, said it was still too early to determine how men in the UK became infected.
“By nature, sexual activity involves intimate contact, which would be expected to increase the likelihood of transmission, regardless of a person’s sexual orientation and regardless of the mode of transmission,” Skinner said.
Francois Balloux of University College London said monkeypox said sex was the type of close contact needed to transmit the disease.
The UK cases “do not necessarily imply a recent change in the route of transmission of the virus”, Balloux said.
Barry Hatton in Lisbon, Portugal, contributed to this report.