Monkeypox: from the Congo to the world

A recent outbreak of monkeypox has health officials worried. Did you know that although we have really no monkeypox vaccine, some countries have stored vaccines? Tens of millions of doses of smallpox vaccination are kept around the world as insurance against terrorism or conflict, and they help protect against monkeypox, writes Science.org.

Monkeypox killed 58 people and managed to infect over 1200 others in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2022 as per a report by the WHO. Since then, the virus has spread to other nations and cases have gone up in Europe as well as North American countries. 

The very first instance of Monkeypox that is documented was in a 9 month old baby in the Congo, back in 1970. The baby was initially thought to have smallpox. 

By 1985, WHO managed to record over 310 cases of monkeypox in West and Central Africa, mostly in the Congo. Nature.com reports that the WHO says a pandemic is unlikely. There have been over 1000 sick people with monkeypox in 30 countries where the virus is non-endemic. 

As of today, there have been in excess of 780 recorded cases of monkeypox in countries where it is not a native virus. National Geographic says that smallpox elimination is driving up the monkeypox cases. The WHO proclaimed smallpox eliminated in 1980 and ceased immunization. Many people over 40 or 50 have a scar on their left upper arm from the smallpox vaccination.

Most of the world’s population, especially young people have not seen smallpox or even heard of the vaccinations, let alone receive one. This discontinued smallpox vaccination, which has negative effects, offered 85% protection against monkeypox.

There was a study in 2010 in central Congo that revealed that vaccination will reduce the monkeypox risk by fivefold. 

Here is why Monkeypox is spreading:

  • Tree chopping and deforestation have led to humans coming in close contact with wild animals. This increases the chance of the virus jumping species, like it happened with the Ebola virus. 
  • Monkeypox has the power to mutate. There was a 2014 study that revealed that there was one strain of monkeypox with a missing gene that may be connected with human-to-human transmission.
  • Monkeypox transmits from one person to another through sexual contact. The fact that it is more prevalent in gay patients gives rise to the realization that there may be a stigma associated with reporting cases to hospitals. There was a report in 2021 Nature Medicine that if the disease is stigmatized, people may not comply with contact-tracing efforts, making ring vaccination harder.

What could possibly cure monkeypox? Health officials will have to focus on isolation and quarantine, as well as community education, because despite its success, ring vaccination is not a panacea.