Seven Confirmed Monkeypox Cases in UK Includes Sexually Transmitted Cluster
Child infected with monkeypox virus in Liberia – since smallpox vaccinations were discontinued children may be even more vulnerable.

There are now seven confirmed cases of monkeypox in the United Kingdom, and all but one case of the virus appears to have been transmitted locally in the UK, including among men having sex with men, the World Health Organization confirmed in a media briefing on Tuesday.

The smallpox-related virus, which circulates widely in central and west Africa, causes flu-like symptoms and a heavy rash of fluid-filled nodules on the limbs and other parts of the body. In some cases it can be fatal, although the west African variant that has infected people in the UK is relatively milder than the Central African strain, UK officials were quoted by British media as saying.

The virus circulates widely among animals in western and central Africa. Among humans, several thousand cases are reported every year in the Democratic Republic of Congo, although the virus is endemic in the Central African Republic, Nigeria and elsewhere in western Africa, WHO said.

WHO is investigating the sources and nature of the UK outbreak together with the UK’s Health Security Agency and the European Centres for Disease Control, said Maria Van Kerkhove in the media briefing.  The first reported UK case was in a British resident who had recently travelled to Nigeria – but some of the new cases have not been directly traceable to that single contact or others, WHO said.

Cluster of cases among men who have sex with men

Ibrahima Socé Fall, WHO Assistant Director of Health Emergencies

Typically, the virus does not spread easily among humans – but the UK cluster of locally-transmitted cases have occurred primarily among men who have sex with other men – leading to new concerns about wider transmission risks through sexual contact.

“We have reached out to our European Regional Office to raise awareness about monkeypox, looking at people with unexplained rash, particularly in communities of men who have sex with men, just to add monkeypox as a potential diagnosis to make sure that we have the right testing underway,” Van Kerkhove said.

But the expanding pace of monkeypox transmission in African rural areas is an even more fundamental concern, noted Ibrahima Socé Fall, WHO Assistant Director General for Emergencies Response. The DRC recorded some 3000 cases in 2021, “and in Nigeria we are seeing increased numbers of cases too.. Clearly the main problem we need to investigate is the expansion of… transmission in Africa.”

While smallpox vaccine is believed to prevent infection, the proportion of people today who have been vaccinated against smallpox, is shrinking every year since routine smallpox vaccination was discontinued several decades ago, when the disease was eradicated. So more young people may be at risk, WHO officials said. And the mortality risk of monkeypox, while lower than for smallpox, can still be as high as 10%, according to the US Centers for Disease Control.

“We really need to invest in the discussion and development of tools for monkeypox,” Socé Fall added. “We have so many unknowns in terms of the dynamics of transmission in the future. In terms of therapeutics and diagnostics, we have so many important gaps.”

Exportation of virus is ‘signal’

Monkeypox, was first identified in 1958 in two colonies of research monkeys – hence its  name.  The first human case was recorded in the DRC in 1970, which is the apparent epicenter for the virus, according to the US Centers for Disease Control.

Along with non-human primates that may be killed and consumed as bushmeat, rodents, which infest rural food storage facilities, are important animal reservoirs for the disease.

Gambian pouched rat – rodents are believed to be a common animal reservoir for monkeypox.

The dynamics of animal transmission means that addressing monkeypox, as well as other emerging pathogens, will require more than just vaccines and treatments, said Dr Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO Health Emergencies.

“Understanding the ecology of this virus is important,” he said. “The cases that are imported to other countries are signals that something is happening,” he said.

“We’re seeing a shift to the geographic distribution of cases. And we also see the environmental pressures that are on our ecosystem as converging threats.

Need for environmental solutions – not only vaccines and medicines

“It’s not a surprise that we’re in a zone in western and central Africa, of increasing climate stress, of changing agricultural practices, of humans trying to survive in many cases, having to adapt, but also at the same time, small animals and rodents are adapting,” Ryan added.

Non-human primates like monkeys are another reservoir for the virus.

“They’re in the same crisis…. They’re seeking the same food sources and that’s bringing the animal population and the human population into ever closer proximity as we all compete, sometimes for those same food resources.

“So we have to really understand that deep ecology.  We have to understand human behavior in those regions, and we have to try and prevent the disease reaching humans in the first place.

“And that may not be necessarily with scientific interventions like vaccines – that may be in changing social and agricultural practices, storage practices.”

Image Credits: US Centres for Disease Control , Laëtitia Dudous, Sakurai Midori/Wikipedia .

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