Deadly Mpox Transmission in DR Congo Happening Under Radar; Most Victims are Children
Patient participating in a clinical trial of Tpoxx, an antiviral treatment for the mpox virus, in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

A leading Geneva-based global health organization has decried the lack of tests available for mpox in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) – where an outbreak declared in 2023 continues unchecked – saying that children are the main victims. 

“The mpox situation in the DRC is deeply alarming and the lack of tests for both mpox and HIV means it’s unclear just how bad the mpox situation is and what the underlying comorbidities are,” said Dr Ayoade Alakija, Chair of the Board at FIND in a press release.

According to FIND, a global non-profit dedicated to accelerating access to diagnostics, only 16% of suspected mpox cases in DRC undergo a PCR test. Among suspected cases that are tested, six out of ten test results are positive, underlining the degree of under-estimation of confirmed mpox cases.

“Testing capacity for mpox and HIV in the DRC is severely limited, meaning that many likely cases of mpox in the country are treated as suspected cases only,” Dr Sergio Carmona, FIND CEO and chief medical officer said.

Left unchecked – virus risks further spread abroad

Alakija compared the current mpox outbreak in the DRC with the situation during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many African countries were left behind in terms of tests and treatments and vaccines.

Left unchecked, the deadly Clade I form of the mpox virus now circulating in the DRC risks spreading further in Africa and beyond, she warned. 

“The people that are being prioritized for tests, treatment and vaccination are not in the outbreak countries in Africa,” she noted, referring to the rollout of measures in high- and middle-income countries over the past two years to counter the much milder, Clade I, form of the mpox virus that exploded in 2022. 

“We can either mobilize resources and fight the deadly mpox outbreak now in the DRC, or we can let the virus continue to spread and fight it when it is imported into other countries,” Alakija  said.

DRC outbreak is the largest ever recorded

According to the US Centers for Disease Control (US CDC) the current DRC mpox outbreak is the largest ever recorded, with cases reported in 22 out of the DRCs 26 provinces. Some 12,569 suspected cases and 581 deaths have been reported since 1 January 2023.  

From the start of 2022 to January 2024, the DRC reported 21,630 suspected MPXV cases and 1,003 deaths. Around 85% of deaths in this period were children under 15 years of age, according to WHO data.  

Epidemic curve shown by month for cases reported to WHO from the African region. Recent cases mostly in DRC.

Potentially ‘distinct’ Clade I strain and new patterns of transmission 

Mpox is a viral infection, which belongs to the same virus family as smallpox. It was traditionally confined to remote, rural areas of central and western Africa, where transmission was sporadic and occurred primarily through human contact with rodents and other small mammals. 

The virus burst onto the global arena in 2022 when WHO declared a global health emergency after the milder, Clade II form of mpox, began to spread through dozens of countries worldwide, infecting thousands of people, mainly through sexual transmission, and particularly men having sex with men. 

The global health emergency was declared over in 2023 following the scale up of diagnostics and vaccination in middle- and high-income countries, aimed at high-risk groups. 

Over the past year, however, global health authorities have expressed rising alarm over the increased circulation of the more deadly Clade 1 of mpox throughout central and east Africa – including through patterns of sexual transmission, including heterosexual transmission, not previously seen. 

In the case of the eastern DRC, female sex workers found to be among the leading groups transmitting the disease, along with transmission through close familial or community contacts, according to a study published Tuesday on the pre-print health sciences platform, MedRxiv. The study looked at transmission patterns in the city of Kamituga, in DRC’s south Kivu province.  

The sustained community-level transmission of mpox now seen in Kamituga “is….  being driven by a distinct Clade I mpox strain, possibly a novel subgroup, as confirmed with qPCR,” the researchers from over a dozen countries found. 

Mpox has similar symptoms as smallpox, including painful blisters and rash, fever, chills and fatigue. In the case of the milder, Clade II form of the virus, most patients recover after a few weeks of supportive care, WHO says.

Image Credits: WHO.

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