International health officials are sounding the alarm about growing outbreaks of monkey pox in Europe and elsewhere, a type of viral infection that is more common in West and Central Africa.
As of Friday, about 80 cases of smallpox have been confirmed and an additional 50 are under investigation in 11 countries, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
How dangerous is it?
The risk to the general public is low at the moment, a U.S. public health official told reporters at a news conference on Friday.
Smallpox is a virus that can cause symptoms such as fever, aches and pains and presents with a characteristic rash with an abnormal rash.
It is related to smallpox, but is usually milder, especially the West African strain of the virus found in a case in the US, which has a mortality rate of about 1 percent. Most people fully recover in two to four weeks, the official said.
The virus is not as easily transmitted as the SARS-CoV-2 virus that caused the global Covid-19 pandemic.
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Experts believe that the current outbreak of monkey pox is transmitted through close, close skin-to-skin contact with someone who has an active rash. This will make it easier to limit its spread as soon as infections are detected, experts said.
“Covid is transmitted through the respiratory tract and is highly contagious. This does not appear to be the case with monkey pox,” said Dr. Martin Hirs, of Massachusetts General Hospital.
Many – but not all – of the people diagnosed in the current monkey pox outbreak are men who have sex with men, including cases in Spain associated with a sauna in the Madrid area.
What are health professionals concerned about?
The recent cases reported so far are informal, according to the WHO, as they occur in countries where the virus does not circulate regularly. Scientists are trying to understand the origin of today’s cases and whether anything has changed about the virus.
Most of the cases reported so far have been identified in the United Kingdom, Spain and Portugal. There have also been cases in Canada and Australia, and an isolated case of smallpox in monkeys has been confirmed in Boston, with public health officials saying more cases are likely to occur in the United States.
WHO officials have expressed concern that more infections could occur as people gather for festivals, parties and holidays in the coming summer months in Europe and elsewhere.
How can people be protected from infection?
The United Kingdom has begun vaccinating healthcare workers who may be at risk in patient care with the smallpox vaccine, which can also protect against monkeypox.
The U.S. government says it has enough smallpox vaccine stored in its Strategic National Reserve (SNS) to vaccinate the entire U.S. population.
There are antiviral drugs for smallpox that could also be used to treat monkey pox under certain conditions, a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services spokesman said in a statement.
Generally, health officials say that people should avoid close personal contact with someone who has a rash or who is not well. People suspected of having monkey pox should be isolated and seek medical attention.
What can be hidden behind the spike in cases?
“Viruses are not new and expected,” said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Vaccine and Infectious Diseases Agency at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada.
Rasmussen said a number of factors, including increased global travel as well as climate change, have accelerated the emergence and spread of viruses. People are also more aware of new cases of all kinds after the Covid pandemic, he said.