Monkeypox could spread far beyond the male, gay and bisexual communities

The World Health Organization on Monday warned against complacency over the rapidly escalating outbreak of monkeypox, saying there is no guarantee the virus will continue to spread within specific communities. .

The UN health agency said while cases have so far been concentrated primarily within gay and bisexual communities, there is little evidence to suggest the disease will remain confined to these groups.

On the contrary, their early detection could be the harbinger of a wider epidemic.

“At the moment, cases continue to be reported in men who have sex with men mostly, but we shouldn’t expect it to stay that way,” said Dr Catherine Smallwood, lead emergencies at the WHO, on the program “Street Signs Europe.”

“Perhaps it really is the canary in the mine alerting us to a new threat of disease.

Dr Catherine Smallwood

senior emergency officer at the World Health Organization

It’s not uncommon for a virus outbreak to start in a particular group or setting before spreading more widely through the general population, Smallwood said, noting that health authorities could learn from early findings.

“It really could be the canary in the mine alerting us to a new disease threat that could spread to other groups,” she continued.

A global health emergency

The WHO on Saturday activated its highest level of alert for the escalating outbreak, declaring the virus a public health emergency of international concern.

The rare designation means the WHO now considers the outbreak to be a significant enough threat to global health that a coordinated international response is needed to prevent the virus from spreading further and potentially escalating into a pandemic.

“We have an epidemic that has spread rapidly around the world, through new modes of transmission, of which we understand too little. For all these reasons, I have decided that the global epidemic of monkeypox represents an emergency of public health of international concern,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

The WHO activated its highest level of alert for the escalating outbreak on July 23, declaring the virus a public health emergency of international concern.

Hollie Adams | Getty Images News | Getty Images

More than 16,000 cases of monkeypox have been reported in more than 70 countries so far this year, and the number of confirmed infections increased by 77% from late June to early July, according to WHO data. Europe has more than 80% of confirmed cases in 2022.

Men who have sex with men are currently considered to be most at risk of infection, with around 99% of cases reported outside Africa this year among men and 98% among men who have sex with men. However, the WHO and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have pointed out that anyone can get monkeypox, regardless of sexual orientation.

Symptoms of the disease – which is generally endemic in Africa – are largely mild, with most patients recovering in two to four weeks. So far, five deaths from the virus have been reported in Africa this year, while no deaths have been reported outside Africa.

Still, Smallwood warned that more severe cases could emerge if the virus spreads to more immunologically vulnerable groups. Young children, pregnant women and immunocompromised people are considered particularly vulnerable to the virus.

“If it spreads to other groups – particularly people at risk of severe monkeypox disease, which we know some groups are more prone to severe disease – then we could see an increased public health impact,” she said.

More data on vaccines needed

There are a number of vaccines and antivirals that have been shown to be effective in treating and preventing disease caused by monkeypox. Indeed, countries have already stepped up vaccination programs for those deemed most at risk, with the United States and the United Kingdom, among others, issuing hundreds of thousands of doses.

However, these vaccines are primarily designed to treat smallpox, and Smallwood said more information is needed to determine their effectiveness as the monkeypox virus continues to spread.

We do not have complete information on the effectiveness and efficacy of these vaccines against monkeypox.

Dr Catherine Smallwood

senior emergency officer at the World Health Organization

“We don’t have complete information on the effectiveness and efficacy of these vaccines against monkeypox,” she said.

Smallwood said the WHO’s call to declare a global health emergency would now focus more attention on the outbreak and, therefore, on the search for vaccines and other modes of treatment.

“We need to be able to be sure that the available and potentially accessible countermeasures are reinforced and that we have the knowledge we need to be really confident in their use,” she added.

The WHO does not recommend mass vaccination at this time, and the United States currently reserves vaccines in its stockpile for people who have confirmed or suspected exposures to monkeypox.

—CNBC’s Spencer Kimball contributed to this report.

Leave a Comment