The global spread of monkeypox is causing alarm among public health officials but experts say its unlikely to spread like the coronavirus epidemic.
Monkeypox is a usually mild viral illness, characterised by symptoms of fever as well as a distinctive bumpy rash.
First identified in monkeys, the viral disease typically spreads through close contact and largely occurs in west and central Africa. It has rarely spread elsewhere, so this fresh spate of cases outside the continent has triggered concern.
A handful of cases of monkeypox have now been reported or are suspected in Britain, Portugal, Spain and the United States.
“This has never been seen before,” said Jimmy Whitworth, a professor of international public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “So this is quite alarming from a public health point of view and something that we really need to get a grip of and control as as quickly as we can.”
Whitworth explained while there was cause for concern, there was no need for panic.
“This is not going to spread and get into the general population and cause an epidemic like the coronavirus has,” Whitworth told Reuters.
The first European case was confirmed on May 7 in an individual who returned to England from Nigeria, where monkeypox is endemic.
The reopening of international travel could be one explanation for the global spread, Whitworth said.
The recent cases are predominantly among men in the gay community or men who have sex with men, authorities have reported.
“It’s not been reported to be a sexually transmitted infection before, but clearly we need to investigate that further to see if it can spread in that route,” Whitworth said. “That probably is at the moment the best working hypothesis for how it is spreading from person to person.”
Immunisation against smallpox, which provides some protection against monkeypox, was stopped after the eradication of the disease in Africa. This could provide some explanation for a rise in cases in the continent, Whitworth said.
Giving the vaccination to people who are at high risk of being exposed to monkeypox or shortly after exposure is one way to prevent the disease, Whitworth said.
The UKHSA (UK Health Security Agency) said on Thursday it would be offering the smallpox vaccine to health workers and others at high risk of exposure.