The World Health Organization on Monday warned against complacency over the rapidly spreading monkeypox outbreak, saying there is no guarantee the virus will continue to spread in certain communities.
The UN health agency said that while cases have so far been concentrated mainly in the gay and bisexual communities, there is little evidence that the disease will remain limited to these groups.
Rather, their early detection may be a precursor to a wider outbreak.
“Currently, cases continue to be reported among men who have sex with men, mostly, but we should not expect this to remain as such,” the doctor said. Katherine Smallwood, senior emergency officer at WHO, told CNBC Street Signs Europe.
It’s not uncommon for virus outbreaks to start in one specific group or one specific environment and then spread to the general population, Smallwood said, noting that health authorities can focus on first results.
“It could indeed be a canary in the mine, warning us of a new disease threat that could spread to other groups,” she continued.
On Saturday, the WHO activated the highest level of alert for an escalating outbreak, declaring the virus A public health emergency of international concern.
The rare designation means that the outbreak is now considered by the WHO to be a serious enough threat to global health that a coordinated international response is needed to prevent the virus from spreading further and potentially becoming a pandemic.
“We have an outbreak that has spread rapidly around the world through new modes of transmission that we understand too little about. For all these reasons, I have decided that the global outbreak of monkeypox constitutes a public health emergency of international concern,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
The WHO activated the highest level of alert as the outbreak escalated in July. 23, declaring the virus a public health emergency of international concern.
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More than 16,000 cases of monkeypox more than 70 countries have been reported this year, and the number of confirmed infections rose by 77% from late June to early July, according to the WHO. Europe accounts for more than 80% of confirmed cases in 2022.
Men who have sex with men are now considered to be most at risk of infection, with about 99% of cases outside of Africa this year among men and 98% among men who have sex with men. However, WHO and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention emphasize that anyone can contract monkeypox, regardless of sexual orientation.
The symptoms of the disease, which is usually endemic to Africa, are mostly mild and most patients recover within two to four weeks. There have been five deaths from the virus in Africa this year, while no deaths have been reported outside of Africa.
However, Smallwood warned that more severe cases could become apparent if the virus spreads to more immunologically vulnerable groups. Young children, pregnant women and immunocompromised people are considered especially vulnerable to the virus.
“If it spreads to other groups — especially people who are vulnerable to severe monkeypox disease, and we know there are certain groups that are more prone to severe disease — then we may see increased public health impact,” she said. .
There are a number of existing vaccines and antiviral drugs that have proven effective in treating and preventing the disease caused by monkeypox. Indeed, countries have already stepped up vaccination programs for those considered most at risk. United States as well as United Kingdom among other things, releasing hundreds or thousands of doses.
However, such vaccines are primarily intended to treat smallpox, and Smallwood said more information is needed to determine their effectiveness as the monkeypox virus continues to spread.
“We don’t have complete information about how effective these monkeypox vaccines are,” she said.
Smallwood said the WHO’s call to declare a global health emergency would now draw more attention to the outbreak and, as a result, research into vaccines and other treatments.
“We need to be sure that the available and potentially available countermeasures are expanded, and that we have the knowledge that we need to be really confident in their use,” she added.
WHO does not currently recommend mass vaccination, and the US currently reserves vaccines in its stockpile for people who have confirmed or suspect exposure to monkeypox.
— Spencer Kimball of CNBC contributed to this report.